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Earthquakes: Getting Ready For The Big OneEarthquakes-Getting-Ready-For-The-Big-One

  • Subject:
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  • Grade(s): 6-8
  • |
  • Duration: Three class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will:
1. Understand the different types of earthquake waves and the impact they can have.
2. Understand why an earthquake can affect different parts of a city in different ways.
3. Understand the importance of taking substrate and construction design into consideration when preparing a city for an earthquake.


The class, student, and teacher will need specific materials to complete the lesson on earthquakes. The class will need the following:
Computers with Internet access (optional but very helpful)
Reference books
Each student will need the following:
Pens and paper
Classroom Activity Sheet: Planning for an Earthquake (see printable version)
Take Home Activity Sheet: Write a Letter (see printable version)
Scenario Fact Sheet (see printable version)


1. Discuss with students where earthquakes are mostly likely to occur. If they don't know, they can look at a map of earthquake hot spots or at theJava Earthquake Globe. If students live near one of these areas, discuss life in "earthquake country."
2. Before proceeding with the activity, make sure that students have a basic understanding of plate tectonics and the relationship between plate movements and earthquakes. To guide the discussion, review the following questions:
  • What are tectonic plates?
  • What are faults?
  • What relationships do tectonic plates and faults have with earthquakes?
  • What is the Richter scale? What do the numbers on the Richter scale mean?
  • What is the difference between P waves and S waves?
  • What are Love and Rayleigh waves, and why are they more destructive than P and S waves?
  • What is the relationship between soil type and susceptibility to damage from an earthquake?
If they need to review this subject, they can browse through available reference materials or the Web sites listed below.
3. Ask students if they remember hearing about any particular earthquakes. Where did these earthquakes occur? What were the consequences? What types of structural damage resulted? If any of your students have ever been in an earthquake, ask them to briefly share their experiences with the class. Help students understand that two major factors contribute to the level of earthquake damage: (a) construction design and quality and (b) the type and magnitude of the waves that an earthquake emits.
4. Divide the class into small groups of approximately four students each. Give each group the Classroom Activity Sheet: Planning for an Earthquake. Ask them to read and discuss the scenario and to carefully follow the directions to create proposals for the city government. Their proposals should include the following components:
  • An introductory paragraph that explains why it's important to consider the different types of soil and construction in a city located near an earthquake fault
  • An analysis of the impact of an earthquake on different neighborhoods of the city
  • A map of the city with its neighborhoods numbered in order of priority. Include buildings at greatest risk.
  • A discussion of the different types of waves that could hit the area and why some are more destructive than others
  • A discussion of the types of buildings that face the greatest risk from earthquake damage
  • A discussion of modern construction techniques that could help protect buildings and bridges from earthquake damage
  • A closing paragraph that summarizes what the city should do to minimize its earthquake risk and to make each of its neighborhoods safer
5. Students should be able to find information in print resources and at the following Web sites:
6. Have each group share its assessment with the class. Did the groups come up with similar proposals? What neighborhoods do they think are the most at risk and why? Do they all agree on the riskiest neighborhood? Would they like to be in the position to assess a real city's earthquake risks? Why or why not? Refer to the Scenario Fact Sheet for clues about what students might discover.
7. Assign the Take Home Activity Sheet: Write a Letter for homework. Ask students to choose one of the two highest-priority neighborhoods of their fictitious city and write a letter to its residents. The letter should inform residents of the reasons why their neighborhood is at risk, describe what might happen to their homes during the next earthquake, and provide some recommendations for minimizing their risk. This activity is a logical extension of the proposal that students completed and provides them with an opportunity to consolidate their thinking and practice persuasive writing techniques.

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Have older students hypothesize some of the political complications that can arise when a city or region is planning to retrofit its structures in preparation for the next earthquake. Ask them to find out about the progress that has been made since the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 (near San Francisco) and to write a paragraph explaining the role of politics in the retrofitting process. Do they think, from a political perspective, that the situation has been handled appropriately or should policies have been made differently to make sure that the Bay Area is prepared for the next major earthquake?

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Discussion Questions

1. Discuss the reasons why an earthquake that measures 6.5 on the Richter scale can inflict very different levels of damage in different places near its epicenter.
2. Explain the reasons why it is important to know about the types of substrate on which a city's neighborhoods are built.
3. Imagine that an earthquake has hit your town, causing a downtown building to collapse. Describe the destruction process, starting with the initial tremor and its resulting waves and ending with the collapse of the building.
4. Discuss the ways in which people can work together to make sure that their neighborhood is as safe as possible in the event of an earthquake.
5. Hypothesize the reasons why the 1999 earthquakes in Turkey damaged so many structures and killed so many people.
6. Hypothesize the reasons why, despite modern technology and construction capabilities, many structures in the world's earthquake-risk zones have not been retrofitted.

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Use the following three-point rubric to evaluate students' work during this lesson. For this lesson to be successful, students must pay close attention to your directions and follow all the steps on the Classroom Worksheet. Inform students that you will be evaluating them on their ability to listen and follow directions as well as on their groups' final proposals.
  • Three points: Students showed exemplary performance or effort in cooperating efficiently in their groups; completed all sections of the Classroom Worksheet; followed all directions to present proposals that reflect thorough research and a clear understanding of the differences between the neighborhoods and the potential impacts of an earthquake
  • Two points: Students showed average performance or effort in cooperating in their groups; completed all sections of the Classroom Worksheet; followed most directions to present proposals that reflect some research and an adequate understanding of the differences between the neighborhoods and the potential impacts of an earthquake
  • One point: Students showed below-average performance or effort in cooperating in their groups; did not complete all sections of the Classroom Worksheet; followed few directions and did not present proposals that reflect thorough research or a clear understanding of the differences between the neighborhoods and the potential impacts of an earthquake

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Learn from the Past, Prepare for the Future
Have each group research one major earthquake, such as the Loma Prieta or the Northridge quake, and focus on their impact on people's lives. Then have each student write a paragraph explaining what the public should know about earthquakes to prepare themselves for the next one. As a follow-up, ask students to find out how individuals and families can prepare for an earthquake.

Organizing a Public Education Campaign
Have each group develop a public education campaign alerting citizens to the potential danger of earthquakes. The campaigns could include posters, brochures, or a Power Point presentation. Make sure the groups identify the real or fictitious city they are educating and describe the potential risks facing the city and actions that can minimize damage. Have groups present their campaigns to the class.

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Suggested Readings

Why the Earth Quakes
Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori. W.W. Norton & Co., 1995.
This book combines an engaging and authoritative text and over one hundred illustrations to explain why earthquakes happen, how we can predict their occurrence and behavior, and how we can prepare for them personally and as a society. The authors use several of history's most famous earthquakes to provide a close look at what happens when the ground we expect to be rock-solid begins to move.

Earthquake Games: Earthquakes and Volcanoes Explained by 32 Games and Experiments
Matthys Levy and Mario Salvadori. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1997.
Being caught in an earthquake is certainly no game, but the authors have devised a series of games and experiments that demonstrate and explain the principles behind earthquakes and volcanoes. Other experiments show how earthquakes can be predicted and measured and how buildings can be designed to prevent earthquake damage.

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National Earthquake Information Center, USGS (U.S. Geological Survey)
Extensive earthquake information.

Earthquakes for Kids and Grownups, USGS Earthquake Hazards Program
An excellent site that includes "Earthquake ABCs," "Cool Facts," and "Stuff for Teachers."

USGS Learning Web Teacher Lessons
Teacher lesson plans focusing on faults; appropriate for grades 7?12. Includes models of three faults.

The World-Wide Earthquake Locator
Developed by the Department of Geography at the University of Edinburgh. Includes maps of earthquake locations, frequently asked questions, and general information about earthquakes.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    epicenter
Definition: The part of Earth's surface directly above the focus of an earthquake.
Context: Even though our house was 50 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, all the bookshelves fell over.

speaker    fault
Definition: A fracture in Earth's crust at risk for displacement or rupture.
Context: The San Andreas fault in California is an area most likely to experience a large and potentially destructive earthquake.

speaker    plate tectonics
Definition: The theory stating that the Earth's outer shell is divided into about 30 tectonic plates that move slowly in relation to one another.
Context: The theory of plate tectonics suggests that Earth is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, with enormous pieces that are constantly moving. When the stress from all this motion becomes too much, the plates slip and slide, resulting in an earthquake.

speaker    retrofit
Definition: To furnish a man-made object with new parts or equipment for improved performance.
Context: Engineers must retrofit the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to make it more stable in the event of another earthquake.

speaker    Richter scale
Definition: A logarithmic scale for expressing the magnitude of an earthquake.
Context: The Northridge Earthquake ranked 6.7 on the Richter scale, making it 10 times more powerful than an earthquake ranking 6.6.

speaker    seismic
Definition: Of or relating to an earthquake.
Context: The San Francisco Bay Area is a hot spot for seismic activity; the region has many faults and is at serious risk for a major earthquake in the near future.

speaker    substrate
Definition: An underlying support or foundation, as for a building.
Context: Houses can be built on different substrates, such as rock, sandy soil, or mud.

speaker    waves
Definition: The way the force of an earthquake moves outward from the epicenter. P-waves are fast, longitudinal waves; S-waves move more slowly but are more powerful; Rayleigh waves churn like ocean waves; and Love waves are the ones most responsible for making buildings collapse.
Context: Geologists have identified four different kinds of waves, or motions, that can occur during an earthquake. The waves most likely to destroy buildings are the slow moving but deadly Love waves.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: Earth and Space Science
Understands basic Earth processes
Knows that the Earth's crust is divided into plates that move at extremely slow rates in response to movements in the mantle.

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: Geography
Knows the physical processes that shape patterns on Earth's surface.
Knows the major processes that shape patterns in the physical environment (e.g., the erosion agents, such as water and ice; earthquake zones and volcanic activity; the ocean circulation system).

Grade level: 6-8
Subject area: Geography
Understands how physical systems affect human systems.
Knows the ways in which humans prepare for natural hazards (e.g., earthquake preparedness; constructing houses on stilts in flood-prone areas; designation of hurricane shelters and evacuation routes ).

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Betsy Hedberg, freelance curriculum writer and teacher.

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