Living in Earthquake Country (6-12)


The goal of this Teaching Box is to teach students about how and why earthquakes cause damage. Living in Earthquake Country explores seismic waves, the ability of scientists to predict the likelihood and severity of earthquakes at specific locations, the difference between magnitude and intensity, the occurrence of earthquakes along patches of planar faults, and the potential damage caused by earthquakes such as landslides, liquefaction, or structural failure.

At the conclusion of the Box, students are asked to select the best place to live in the San Francisco Bay Area. They will justify their selection by using the knowledge gained through this exploration.

Goals of the teaching box

These activities are presented as an inquiry exploration. Students learn the importance of studying past earthquakes to predict what might happen in the future.

Appropriate for

Grades 6-12

Time requirements

Teachers can select a suite of lessons that best suits their classroom time requirements. The entire unit can be covered in as few as 12 class periods (one class period = 50 minutes) and could be expanded to as many as 18 class periods.

Student web page

To avoid having students type in lengthy URLs to access online resources, we have developed a student web page for this teaching box, entitled Earthquake Hazards Student Page . This page has direct links to each of the resources used within the lessons in this teaching box. We recommend that students bookmark this site for easy access.



Students should be familiar with the concept of plate tectonics. If review for the class is needed, we recommend Earthquakes As Evidence For Plate Tectonics, which gives a brief review of plate boundaries and plate movement. Use Activity 1 and Activity 2.

Technology requirements

Computer lab for whole class or individual computers where students can access the listed sites.
Flash is required in lesson 6. You may wish to have Adobe Acrobat Reader to reduce download times for showing slide shows.

Concepts and Standards

View concepts and standards associated with the lessons, (or use the Concepts and Standards link at left.)

Online resources

View a list of resources used in the lessons (or use the Online Resources link at left.)



Lesson 1. Introductory Activity: Earthquake Damage
This consists of one activity in which students view a series of slides and become familiar with the damage caused by earthquakes.

Lesson 2. Faults are at Fault: Where Earthquakes Occur
Students plot the locations of faults and then map recent earthquakes in order to see the relationship between earthquakes and faults.

Lesson 3. Earthquakes Patterns
This lesson consists of three activities.

  1. Patterns from Parkfield: Students look at the cyclical nature of the Parkfield, California earthquakes.
  2. Patterns of Recurrence: Students investigate and graph earthquake occurrences on the Mojave segment of the San Andreas fault in order to see the relationships between fault length, recurrence interval, magnitude, and risk.
  3. Recurrence on the Hayward Fault: Students apply what they have learned about patterns of recurrence to patterns along the Hayward Fault.

Lesson 4. Seismic Waves
This lesson consists of two activities.

  1. Investigating Seismic Waves: Students learn about the four types of seismic waves, their characteristics and effects.
  2. Predicting Wave Damage: Students predict the level of damage each wave might cause in a residential area and test their predictions against several computer animations.

Lesson 5. A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On!
This lesson consists of two activities.

  1. 1906 vs. 1989: A comparison of two major earthquakes: Students gather data and compare the 1906 San Francisco and 1989 Loma Prieta earthquakes.
  2. Determining the Intensity: Students discover that magnitude, distance to the epicenter, and rock type are key factors that influence the amount of shaking that occurs in an area due to an earthquake.

Lesson 6. Landslides, Liquefaction, and Structural Failure
This lesson consists of three activities.

  1. Shaking and Landslides: Through a hands-on activity, students model the relationship between shaking and landslides.
  2. Earthquakes and Liquefaction: Through a hands-on activity, students determine the factors that cause liquefaction.
  3. Earthquakes and Structural Failure: Students use a computer simulation to determine the best bridge structure to withstand earthquakes of varying magnitudes.

Lesson 7. Examining All the Factors
Students explore several interactive web sites to gather information which will enable them to compare the seismicity and potential amount of earthquake damage for five different locations in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Authors of the original teaching box

This box was created during the summer of 2005 as part of a pilot project by the following professionals from the San Francisco Bay area of California:

  • Molla Huq, Teacher - Independence High School, East Side Union High School District
  • Teresa Trejo-Mejia, Teacher - Valley High School, Antioch Unified School District
  • Peg Dabel, Teacher - Adams Middle School, West Contra Costa Unified School District
  • Matt d'Alessio, Scientist - United States Geological Survey


EXTRA: Rapid Earthquake Viewer Lessons

The following lessons were created by a group of Colorado teachers in 2007. They use the interactive Rapid Earthquake Viewer visualization tool (REV ) and are meant to augment the original lessons in the "Living in Earthquake Country" Teaching Box with additional data-related activities. REV provides access to data from seismograph stations around the world and is a collaborative effort of the University of South Carolina and IRIS.

The EXTRA set of lessons were authored by:

  • Becky Benzie, Teacher - Green Mountain High School, Jefferson County, CO
  • Greg Bensen, Science Advisor, Faculty - Dept. of Physics, Univ. of CO, Boulder, CO
  • Erika DeBell, Teacher - Mountain Vista High School, Highlands Ranch, CO
  • Holly Devaul, Manager of Educational Programs and Services, Digital Learning Sciences, UCAR, Boulder, CO
  • Shelley Olds, Education and Outreach Specialist - UNAVCO, Boulder, CO
  • Heidi Reeg, Former Teacher - Casey Middle School, currently of Dept. of Geology, Univ of CO, Boulder, CO
  • Colleen Roach, Teacher - Florida Pitt Waller K-8, Denver Public Schools, CO
  • Daniel Snare, Secondary Science Specialist - Jefferson County Schools, Golden, CO
  • Scott Troy, Teacher- West High School, Denver Public Schools, CO


  • Rapid Earthquake Viewer Tutorial
    REV gathers earthquake data from seismic networks around the Earth and posts information about recent notable earthquakes so students can see where they happened and view the seismograms from global seismograph stations, including any in your local area.
  • Where Do Those Squiggles Come From?
    This activity is designed to help students understand how a seismograph records the ground motion that accompanies an earthquake and other events that cause ground shaking.
  • Exploring a Current Earthquake
    Students explore data for a recent earthquake, recording observations about where the earthquake occurred, where ground motion was recorded, and where it was felt.
  • Adopt a Seismograph Station
    Students choose one of the stations in the global seismic network to monitor data and record observations from earthquakes and other events that occur around the world daily. The class assembles a master list of events, noting the location of earthquakes and the distribution of the seismograph stations that detect them.
  • Comparing Ground Motion from Earthquakes
    Students use data provided in REV (Rapid Earthquake Viewer) to compare the amplitude of the seismic waves recorded as a result of ground shaking from recent earthquakes. They explore the concept of a logarithmic scale, and create a graph to explore the relationship between ground motion and earthquake magnitude.
  • What's THAT Inside our Earth?
    This lesson on inferring the interior structure of the Earth might be best suited in conjunction with (or before) a unit in plate tectonics, or prior to a unit including earthquakes. It also provides a good example of how models change over time as our understanding of nature improves with more detailed observations.


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