This fun, hands-on lesson introduces students to earth science concepts, tectonic plates, and earthquake activity. Students will create their own seismographs and enact mock earthquakes.
Let’s Make an Earthquake!
4th grade Earth Science
- plastic ruler that is flexible
- heavy can
- Students will learn about the cause of earthquakes.
- Students will learn about how scientists measure earthquake intensity.
- Students will build their own seismograph to measure shaking.
Grade 4 Earth Sciences: 5a. Students know some changes in the earth are due to slow processes, such as erosion, and some changes are due to rapid processes, such as landslides, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes.
Use three Writing to Learn (WTL) exercises to focus students’ attention on the class objectives.
- First WTL: have the students write what they know about earthquakes and their personal experiences, if any.
- Second WTL: have the students research plate tectonics using their textbooks, the internet, and/or the library, then use the information that they find to write a short essay.
- Third WTL: have the students research seismographs and/or view a video showing how seismographs work. Students should take notes on what they view to be used for the activity.
Begin the class by posing questions to engage students: who has felt an earthquake? What do we know about earthquakes? What famous earthquakes have happened in our history? Use the first WTL exercise from the anticipatory set to generate discussion.
Use the second WTL exercise from the anticipatory set to generate discussion. Explain the concept of plate tectonics and how the outermost layer of Earth, called the lithosphere, is mobile. When the plates slide over the uppermost layer of the mantle, called the asthenosphere, geological processes take place, including earthquakes.
Use the third WTL exercise from the anticipatory set to generate discussion. Discuss with students how scientists use seismographs to record when and where earthquakes happen. Real seismographs are complicated instruments with weights, levers, and motors. We can make a simple model using these materials (listed above).
- Spread paper out on the table.
- Tape the marker to one end of the ruler so that it makes a long L shape.
- Tape the ruler to the side of the can so the tip of the marker is touching the paper.
- Try gently shaking the table: What happens on the paper? What happens with smaller or bigger shakes?
- Real seismographs have rolls of paper that rotate slowly. Have one person try moving the paper as another person shakes the table. Can you see seismic (earthquake) waves being recorded?
- If you shake the table laterally and up and down, how does that affect the image of the waves on the paper?
Have the students use what they have learned via their WTL exercises and apply their knowledge, particularly their notes, to what they learned via the activity. Answer the following questions in a fourth and final WTL exercise (see WTL listing below):
- What does it mean when the wavy lines on the paper are higher or lower? How could you use that to measure an earthquake? Example: height of the largest waves indicates the size of an earthquake.
- How can scientists use seismographs all over the world to pinpoint the location of an earthquake? Think about ripples in a pond or GPS systems. Example: length of the earthquake record and the arrival times of each wave, the distance of the focus from the recording point can be determined.
- What parts of the activity emulate how a true earthquake occurs? What are some of the problems an earthquake causes? Examples: destruction of buildings, larger earthquakes causing small changes to Earth’s orbit, etc.
Writing To Learn Exercises
Directions: While watching the video on seismographs, take notes on what seismographs are, what they are used for, and how scientists use seismographs to record when and where earthquakes happen.
Directions: Using what you have learned from your research, your notes from the video, and the seismograph activity we did together, answer the following questions.
What does it mean when the wavy lines on the paper are higher or lower? How could you use that to measure an earthquake?
How can scientists use seismographs all over the world to pinpoint the location of an earthquake? Think about ripples in a pond or GPS systems.
What parts of the activity emulate how a true earthquake occurs? What are some of the problems an earthquake causes?
What to do next time
Have the students consider ways to improve the activity, or present new ways to test cause and effect using the seismograph in other ways.
Image credit: California Academy of Sciences