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Make Your Own Earthquake: K - 4 Lesson Plan

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Make your Own Earthquake: Students will be able to generate energy waves and observe their amplitudes as recorded by a simple seismometer. They'll make their own earthquake!


The introduction to the lesson will develop the path your lesson takes. This lesson plan is intended for grades K – 4 and will need to be tailored to your specific needs.

Earthquake Engineering Component

Structural earthquake engineering is an iterative process that strives to improve structural response to earthquake-induced forces. Earthquakes can cause walls to crack, foundations to move or settle, utilities to rupture and even entire buildings to collapse. In an effort to protect the public and avoid structural damage engineers incorporate into their structural designs techniques that withstand these incredible forces. Some examples include cross bracing, tapered profiles, base isolation and tuned mass damping. In all cases engineers contrive an idea, test it, and then, based on its performance, re-engineer the structure until the desired outcome is achieved.

Learning Objectives and Standards


Links to the National Science Standards and to individual State Science Standards are available by using this link:


Students may be able to (grade level dependent):

  • Help students understand how a seismometer (which works similarly to a Quake Catcher Network (QCN) accelerometer) functions. See this link for instructions on how to make your own shoebox seismometer
  • Characterize materials as solid or liquid and investigate their properties. Discuss soil vs. water and how, although they have very different properties, waves travel through both mediums. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 1.1.2
  • Observe, demonstrate, sketch and compare how applied forces change motion of objects. Use the shoebox seismometer to show how the change of motion is recorded. Discuss how earthquakes apply pushes and pulls on structures. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 2.1.6
  • Discuss earthquake engineering technologies that have helped to protect humans. Discuss the seismograph that has helped human understand earthquakes to better protect against them. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 2.4.2
  • Design and build a homemade seismometer. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 2.4.3
  • Use the seismometer as a sample machine that has helped to solve the mystery of the earthquake and its devastating effects on society. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 3.4.2
  • Use the seismometer to show the energy, in form of acceleration, that earthquakes produce, which is how they are able to change the shape of the land so quickly. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 4.2.3
  • Discuss the forces derived from earthquakes: show how the greater the force applied to the seismometer the larger the recorded amplitudes. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 4.4.3

You may choose to have students maintain a journal as a record of observations and conclusions.

Material List


See instructions at on how to assemble the shoebox seismometer. Also see instructions at on how to obtain, setup and use the QCN accelerometer.

  1. The procedure and lesson plan in general will depend on the grade level and direction you want the lesson to go. You may want to focus more on wave propagation through solids and liquids. You may want to focus more on forces and motion, or the seismometer itself. Either way this fun activity will engage the students and bring in the principles desired.
  2. Begin by introducing the subject that you wish to focus on. Discussions around earthquakes and the damage they have caused in the past will be sure to catch their attention. The following link to the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program provides an excellent example to show the students a historical earthquake, 1906 rupture of the San Andreas fault:

You may also want to draw their attention to more recent examples such as the earthquake in Haiti, 12 January 2010, or Japan, 11 March 2011 (this website has some very dramatic photos of the Japan earthquake:

  1. Following the introduction to the topic you may want to transition into the activity. The following link discusses seismometers and explains their function and purpose:
  2. Next, have the students begin the activity. You may find that for younger students the shoebox seismometer will be more engaging as well as more educational for them. However, both seismometers are fun! Follow the shoebox seismometer instructions posted above. Have the students experiment with the motions/shaking. Help them to understand that the harder they shake the box, the larger the recordings, just like a real earthquake. The larger the recordings on a real seismometer are, the more powerful the earthquake was.
  3. If you choose to use the QCN accelerometer have it linked to your computer at the beginning of the lesson. Attach the accelerometer to the floor or a flat piece of wood on the floor that the students can jump up and down on (see the instructional video here: As they jump waves of energy propagate through the floor materials and are detected by the accelerometer in the form of acceleration of the meter itself. The software records the input and displays it in units of gravitational acceleration (e.g. 0.2g, which is 20% of gravitational acceleration; 32.2 ft/s2).
  4. While experimenting with the seismometer you may choose to discuss the law that governs the function of a seismometer, which is Isaac Newton’s Law of Inertia: a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force, and a body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. The energy waves through the floor, or the shaking of the shoebox, provide the outside force necessary to accelerate the recording device; whether a pen in the box or the accelerometer.
  5. The following link is one more source available to better understand seismometers and how they work:

Links and Resources


  • Accelerometer – a device that measures acceleration as weight per unit of mass, also known as g-force.
  • Earthquake Engineering – study of the behavior of buildings and other structures subject to seismic loading.
  • G-force – “g” from gravitational; this is acceleration relative to free fall. For example, 2g would be acceleration at a rate of twice the acceleration of gravity (32.2 ft/s2 or 9.8 m/s2).
  • Seismic waves – a wave of energy that travels through the earth as a result of an earthquake, volcano, explosion, or other.
  • Seismometer – instruments that measure motion of the ground; especially seismic waves generated by earthquakes or other seismic sources.


Pre Activity Assessment

  • Ask the students to write what they already know about earthquakes. Perhaps some of them have been in an earthquake and would like share their experiences with the class.
  • Have the students suggest ways, by writings and drawings, that scientists and engineers might be able to measure the size of an earthquake.

Activity Embedded Assessment

  • Students may want to write their observations of the earthquake damage videos or photos you show them and answer the question: Why is it important for engineers to understand earthquakes?
  • Students should be asked to evaluate what they see during the activity. Have them make observations about the relationship between their jumping or shaking and the recordings made on the computer screen or paper, respectively.

Post Activity Assessment

  • Provide follow up questions relative to the science standard(s) you’re focusing on for this lesson. Have students answer these questions on a worksheet or in their own notebooks.
  • Invite students to comment on why seismometers are important. Have them record their reflections in a notebook.


  • This activity could be extended for older students with follow up questions for them to research online or at the library and return their findings.
  • The activity could be extended if the students are asked to build their own shoebox seismometer in class; perhaps in groups would work best.


  • This demonstration can be tailored to the learning level of the students by the complexity of the principles drawn upon for discussion and reflection (i.e. liquids and solids vs. energy).
  • This activity can be very fun for the students. You can try all kinds of things such as seeing which student can make the biggest earthquake!

Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Jason Lloyd; NEES EOT (2011), "Make Your Own Earthquake: K - 4 Lesson Plan,"

    BibTex | EndNote