My left-field lesson - When the earth moves

In an earthquake zone, seismology lessons are of vital importance

Keith Machin

Learning about earthquakes takes on a special significance when you live in a part of the world where your school or home is constantly at risk of being destroyed by one. This is the case for our students at Rangi Ruru Girls' School in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Major fault lines run the length of our country and more than 15,000 earthquakes hit here every year. Most of them are minor, but in September 2010 the region experienced an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.1 on the Richter scale. This, along with the aftershocks in February and June 2011, caused immense damage to the city and also to our school.

We are incredibly fortunate to have had some of our damaged buildings replaced with new ones, including our science centre. And while we hope that we will not have any more large seismic events here in Christchurch, we want our students to understand the science of earthquake prediction.

So when we heard that the Seismometers for Schools programme was looking for participants in the area, we were quick to respond.

The project, which is led by Dr Kasper van Wijk and his colleagues at the University of Auckland, has already placed seismometers in about 50 schools in New Zealand, the US and Australia. We were delighted when we heard that our school had been chosen as the next addition to the network.

Tracing the tremors

The seismometer was installed in August. We found an excellent location for it in the main corridor of our rebuilt science centre, where it is accessible by all students and staff. We plan to use it in teaching our students about earth science and introducing concepts such as plate tectonics and seismology. It allows us to take real-time measurements of seismic activity and to provide context for teaching electromagnetic induction as part of our physics courses for 16- to 18-year-olds.

So far, our students have been very positive about the installation. They regularly drop by the science centre to see it, both in and out of lesson time. We have had the seismometer for only three weeks but have already created our own mini-quakes by getting groups of students to jump in unison in front of the instrument.

We have also shown pupils how to locate an earthquake using information from our seismometer and data provided by other schools in New Zealand that are taking part in the programme. By taking readings from three seismometers, it is possible to accurately identify where the epicentre of an earthquake is.

As a girls' school, we feel a responsibility to encourage more young women to pursue science. The earthquakes aren't going away; New Zealand needs good scientists and engineers with the skills to make accurate predictions that will help to protect our cities. We are very excited about using the seismometer with our classes and encouraging a new generation of geoscientists.

Keith Machin is head of physics at Rangi Ruru Girls' School in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was talking to Helen Amass

Top 10 earthquake resources

1 Earth aid

This lesson explores the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and incorporates a charity role-play exercise in which students must allocate aid money.

2 Drift away

Explore the geological processes of the Earth's crust with this series of resources on plate tectonics.

3 Danger zone

Get pupils to consider how it feels to live in an "active zone" for earthquakes and work through exam-style questions to consolidate learning.

4 Converging classes

This cross-curricular carousel activity allows students to apply their numeracy skills in geography lessons to create graphs and make predictions.

5 Explosive assembly

This short assembly is perfect to deliver alongside (or as the culmination of) a unit on earthquakes and volcanoes.

6 Seismic introduction

Give younger students an engaging and comprehensive introduction to the topic of earthquakes with this image-packed presentation.

7 Shaking news

Bring literacy into earthquake lessons with this newspaper activity that encourages students' to create a front page demonstrating their understanding of the subject.

8 Restless Earth

An extensive set of activities and worksheets exploring plate tectonics, fold mountains, volcanoes and earthquakes.

9 Kobe chaos

Use this Japanese case study as a starting point when teaching about earthquake scenarios.

10 Rescue operation

Inform children about the complexities of coordinating rescue operations after earthquakes in this hands-on investigation lesson.

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Keith Machin

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