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Make Your Own Earthquake: Grade 5 - 8 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 an accelerometer.










The introduction to the lesson will develop the path your lesson takes. This lesson plan is intended for grades 5 - 8 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
  • Recognize that objects in motion have kinetic energy and objects at rest have potential energy. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 6.1.4
  • Describe with examples that potential energy exists in several different forms (e.g., elastic potential energy of the fault line just before release). Indiana State Academic Science Standard 6.1.5
  • Compare and contrast potential and kinetic energy and how they can be transformed from one form to another. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 6.1.6
  • Explain that energy may be manifested as heat, light, electricity, MECHANICAL MOTION, and sound. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 6.1.7
  • Understand how to apply potential or kinetic energy to power a simple device. (jumping stores up potential and transfers it to kinetic from the student to the accelerometer). Indiana State Academic Science Standard 6.4.1
  • Describe the transfer of energy amongst energy interactions (Discuss how the student transfers the energy into the jumping platform, the platform transmits the energy in a wave to the seismometer and it's recorded in accelerations of the meter itself). Indiana State Academic Science Standard 6.4.3
  • Explain that when energy is transferred from one system to another, the total quantity of energy does not change. (Discuss how the transferred energy from the student to the platform by jumping travels in waves through the ground and sound waves through the air: the seismometer records the ground waves). Indiana State Academic Science Standard 7.1.1
  • Recognize and provide evidence of how light, sound and other waves have energy and how they interact with different materials. (Discuss the graph that shows evidence of a wave of energy that passed under the seismometer). Indiana State Academic Science Standard 7.1.4
  • Describe and investigate how forces between objects can act at a distance or by means of direct contact between objects. (Discuss the interaction of the seismometer and the wave, as well as the wave of a real earthquake and the structures in contact with the earth it travels through.) Indiana State Academic Science Standard 7.1.5
  • Explain how convection currents in the mantle cause lithospheric plates to move and cause fast changes like earthquakes. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 7.2.4
  • Understand that energy is the capacity to do work. (Discuss how the energy from an earthquake is observed in the work it does moving earth and structures, even destroying some of the same). Indiana State Academic Science Standard 7.4.1
  • You may choose to have students maintain a journal as a record of observations and conclusions.

Material List


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 kinetic and potential energy or you may want to focus more on energy transfer, or even 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:
  3. 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: The QCN accelerometer is a strong motion accelerometer and is made to record moderate to large regional earthquakes. The graph it produces mimics a seismogram and helps scientists and engineers interpret the magnitude of the earthquake.
  4. 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).
  5. Following the introduction to seismometers and earthquakes, choose one of the following procedures to direct the remainder of the lesson: Indiana State Academic Science Standard 6-8.RS.3
    1. What are seismic waves? See Seismic Waves and the Slinky (by Prof. L. Braile)
    2. Introduction to the Quake Catcher Network and Lab (by Deborah Kane):
    3. Magnitude and Intensity Lab (by Deborah Kane): 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 provide the outside force necessary to accelerate the recording device.

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: 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 that scientists and engineers might be able to measure the size of an earthquake.
  • Have students research the meaning of the following terms (Indiana State Academic Science Standard 6-8.RS.4): accelerometer, seismometer, seismograph, g-force, seismic waves, and earthquake engineering.

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? Indiana State Academic Science Standard 6-8.WS.1, 6-8.WS.4
  • 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 by the accelerometer. Have them record their evaluations and observations in a notebook. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 6-8.WS.2

Post Activity Assessment

  • Have students research the historical use of seismometers and their relevance to society's need to understand earthquakes. Indiana State Academic Science Standard 6-8.WS.6, 6-8.WS.7, 6-8.WS.8, 6-8.WS.9, 6-8.RS.9


  • Assign pre- or post-activity research with written reports to help the students better comprehend the subject.


  • 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. energy vs. wave propagation).

Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Jason Lloyd; NEES EOT (2011), "Make Your Own Earthquake: Grade 5 - 8 Lesson Plan,"

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