Grade level: 9-12 subject area: Earth Science credit

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Earthquakes: Learn from the Past, Prepare for the Future


Three class periods



Earth Science

Betsy Hedberg, freelance curriculum writer and teacher.


Students will understand the following:

1. The basics of how earthquakes work and why they occur

2. The importance of high-quality construction in earthquake zones

3. The political aspects of earthquake preparedness and cleanup

4. What we can learn from previous earthquakes and how these lessons can help us prepare for future earthquakes


For this lesson, you will need:

Computers with Internet access
Two large sponges
One large rubber band
Paper cutouts of continents (created with butcher paper and world map)
Colored markers
Materials for a written report or presentation software, such as PowerPoint or HyperStudio
Copies for every student of Map #1: Plates of the Earth, available at .
Copies for every student of Map #2: World Map for Plotting Earthquakes, available at .

1. Ask students which earthquakes they remember hearing about in the news during the past few years. What were the effects of these earthquakes? What lessons might these earthquakes teach us to help us better prepare for future ones? Hold a brief class discussion on these questions.

2. Inform students that the San Francisco Bay area has suffered from serious earthquakes and is at high risk for another major earthquake. Tell them that their goal in this lesson, after some preliminary research, will be to present to San Francisco Bay area politicians, construction engineers, architects, and geologists the lessons they should learn from previous earthquakes around the world.

3. If students haven't already studied earthquakes, have them use the Internet and/or the library to find background information about earthquakes, such as the answers to the following questions:

- Why do earthquakes occur?

- What happens underground during an earthquake?

- What happens above ground during an earthquake?

- Where do earthquakes tend to occur? Why do earthquakes occur in these areas?

4. Write the following occupations on the board: geologist, construction engineer/architect, and politician. As a class, define these occupations and discuss the different roles of each in earthquake planning and recovery. What kind of information would help people in each occupation prepare for an earthquake? Tell the class that they'll be conducting research on past earthquakes or on current earthquake preparedness in the San Francisco Bay area.

5. Divide the class into small groups of approximately four students each. Have all but one of the groups use the library and/or the Internet to find out about different major earthquakes that have occurred in the past 20 years. Some earthquakes to research include the Loma Prieta (San Francisco Bay area), Northridge (Los Angeles), Kobe, and Turkish quakes. Ask them to answer the following questions:
- Why did an earthquake occur here? Is this city in a major fault zone?

- How severe was this earthquake? What was its ranking on the Richter scale?

- How did this earthquake affect people's lives in the region?

- What was the quality of construction in the region? How did buildings and other structures fare in the quake?

- How prepared was this city for an earthquake? What evidence is there to support your answer?

- How did politicians react to the earthquake?

- What do geologists or others say should be done to prepare this city for another earthquake?

6. Have the remaining group research and take notes on the current earthquake situation in the San Francisco Bay area. This group should address the following questions:

- How great an earthquake risk does the Bay Area face?

- What is being done to prepare for such an event? How are geologists, construction engineers and architects, and politicians working together (or not working together)?

- What do geologists think should be done, assuming cooperation from the politicians and adequate funding?

7. Stage a class forum in which the last group (the one that studied San Francisco's current risk) pretends to represent San Francisco Bay area politicians, construction engineers, and geologists. The roles can be divided within that group. Have each of the other groups explain to the San Francisco group (and the rest of the class) the lessons that should be learned from the earthquake it has researched. Ask the members of the San Francisco group to reply with information on Bay Area geology and earthquake preparedness and to explain how they think the new information can help them become better prepared. At the end of the forum, each group will have presented the major points of its research, and the San Francisco group will have informed the class as to its research on the Bay Area earthquake situation.

8. Now that they've learned about specific earthquakes, ask students to consider the ways in which the three professions listed on the board interact with each other to prepare for and recover from earthquakes. Hold a class discussion on this topic, using the following questions as guidelines:
- What role do geologists play in studying earthquakes?

- Why do construction engineers and architects need to be familiar with earthquakes? Do they always take geologists' recommendations when designing buildings and structures? Why or why not?

- What role do politicians play in the discussion of earthquakes? How do political factors affect the roles of geologists and construction engineers or architects? Do politicians always base their decisions on geologists' recommendations?

- How do these three professions work together for earthquake preparedness and in the aftermath of an earthquake? How effectively did they work together in past earthquakes, and how should they work together in the San Francisco Bay area today?

Adaptation for younger students (Grades 6-8)

Have each group research one major earthquake, such as the Loma Prieta in the San Francisco Bay area or the Northridge quake in Los Angeles. How did the earthquake affect people's lives? Was the community prepared for such an earthquake? Have students create an “Earthquake Preparedness” poster or brochure explaining what people should know about earthquakes in order to be well prepared. Include information about how individuals and families can prepare for an earthquake.

1. Discuss the role that political factors play in determining how cities and regions prepare for and react to earthquakes.
2. Hypothesize what would happen in your town if geologists suddenly announced that a severe earthquake was highly probable in the next 20 years. How do you think the town leaders and the public would react? If this is a realistic situation for your town, what have the reactions been so far?
3. How important do you think it is for the construction industry to develop materials and techniques to make buildings and other structures safe during earthquakes? What if these developments are extremely expensive? Should they still be implemented?
4. Do you think it's important to study historical events, such as past earthquakes, to learn how to handle events in the present and the future? How does learning about past events help us in the present and the future?
5. Hypothesize the effects of a major earthquake in different parts of the world based on your knowledge of political situations, construction materials, and other factors in various countries. Would an earthquake that ranks 6.5 on the Richter scale, for example, affect regions in the same way, or would the effects be different depending on the location?
6. What types of things do you think the public should be taught about earthquakes? Discuss the things you've been taught, and assess whether you think you've learned enough about earthquakes in your schooling and from the media.

Evaluate students' presentations on a scale of one to five, using these questions as criteria:
- Did the student participate cooperatively in the group?

- Did the student clearly explain his or her points?

- Did the student speak for the same amount of time as other group members?

- Did the group follow instructions? Did its research and report answer all the required questions?

- Were the group's overall conclusions logical and based on sound research?

Amnesia or Insight?

Have students research San Francisco's political history with regard to earthquakes and construction, including the reasons that the city was developed in a major fault zone. Ask them to write paragraphs explaining whether they think San Francisco has learned from its past mistakes or whether it is repeating them.

What Was It Like?

Find someone who has been through a serious earthquake and invite that person to speak to the class about his or her experience. Have students ask questions about what the earthquake felt like, how structures held up, and how the city dealt with the earthquake's aftermath. If your class or individual students have been through an earthquake, have them discuss their own experiences.

Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault

Fradkin, Philip L., New York: Henry Holt, 1998

Magnitude 8 is a history of earthquakes in the San Andreas Fault with the inclusion of other major earthquakes around the world. Fradkin uses human and natural disasters to tell the story of how suddenly, and unexpectedly earthquakes occur. He cautions that when the magnitude 8 earthquake occurs, which it will along the San Andreas Fault, it is up to the individual to be prepared.
Earthquake Country: How, Why & Where Earthquakes Strike in California

Iacopi, Robert L., Tucson, AZ: Fisher Books, 1996

This book is intended only to explore the nature of earthquakes in California, although it makes comparisons to other quakes around the world. The text is supported by informative maps and photos to illustrate scientific concepts.

The World-Wide Earthquake Locator

A geographical information resource for schools, developed by the Department of Geography, University of Edinburgh. The "locator" accesses data at the National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado and provides maps which can be saved to a web browse.
Athena Curriculum: Earth Resources

A site providing a broad range of instructional materials and resources for K-12 classrooms: real time science data and images; classroom activities; additional links for earthquake information.
Geology Labs On-Line

Web-based lab activities for high school and above. Examples: Virtual Earthquake; Virtual Plate Tectonics. Could provide model for development of activities for younger grade levels, also.
BC Education - Geological Sciences

Lesson plans, covering topics on earthquakes and plate tectonics. Includes learning outcomes, instructional strategies, assessment strategies, learning resources re: video, software, and laser disks.
USGS (United States Geological Survey)

Lesson plans and resources for teachers, across the grade levels. Emphasis on "hands-on" learning and the use of technology tools. USGS offers a wealth of resources re: the study of earthquakes and related phenomenon.


A minor earthquake following a larger one that occurs at or near the same place.


After a major earthquake, there are numerous aftershocks, many of which people can feel.


A minor earthquake preceding a larger one that occurs at or near the same place.


A small earthquake may be an isolated incident, or it may be a foreshock of a larger earthquake in the near future.

plate tectonics

The processes that cause changes and movement within the Earth's crust.


The existence of earthquake zones, such as the San Francisco Bay area, makes sense when one considers the theory of plate tectonics; the Bay Area is at the junction of two of the Earth's tectonic plates.


To reinforce an existing structure.


In order to make the Bay Bridge more stable in the event of another earthquake, engineers must retrofit the bridge.

Richter scale

a scale for measuring the magnitude of earthquakes.


The Northridge earthquake ranked 6.7 on the Richter scale, which is 10 times more powerful than an earthquake that ranks 5.7.


Of or caused by an earthquake.


The San Francisco Bay area is a “hot spot” for seismic activity; there are many earthquake faults in the region, posing a serious risk for a major earthquake in the near future.

Grade Level:


Subject Area:


Understands basic Earth processes.

Knows effects of the movement of crustal plates (e.g., earthquakes occur along boundaries between colliding plates; sea-floor spreading occurs where plates are moving apart; mountain building occurs where plates are moving together; volcanic eruptions release pressure created by molten rock beneath the Earth's surface).

Grade Level:


Subject Area:



Knows the physical processes that shape patterns on the Earth's surface.


Understands how physical processes affect different regions of the United States and the world (e.g., effects of hurricanes in the Caribbean basin and the eastern United States; effects of earthquakes in Turkey, Japan, and Nicaragua; and effects of desertification and soil degradation, flash floods, dust storms, sand movement, soil erosion, and salt accumulation in dry environments).

Grade Level:


Subject Area:



Understands how physical systems affect human systems.


Knows how humans overcome “limits to growth” imposed by physical systems (e.g., technology and human adaptation).


Benchmark:Understands how people who live in naturally hazardous regions adapt to their environments (e.g., the use of sea walls to protect coastal areas subject to severe storms and the use of earthquake-resistant construction techniques in different regions within the Ring of Fire).


Benchmark:Knows factors that affect people's attitudes, perceptions, and responses toward natural hazards (e.g., religious beliefs, socioeconomic status, and previous experiences).
Copyright 2001

Teachers may reproduce copies of these materials for classroom use only.

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