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Make Your Own Earthquake: Grade 9 - 12 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. Students will use the recorded accelerations to further understand mechanical energy and acceleration.










The introduction to the lesson will develop the path your lesson takes. This lesson plan is intended for grades 9 - 12 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.
  • Recognize that earthquakes are a result of plate tectonics. Indiana State Academic Science Standard ES.6.3
  • Use the graphs produced by the accelerometer to describe, measure and analyze acceleration motion in one dimension. Be able to explain this acceleration in terms of displacement and acceleration. Indiana State Academic Science Standard P.1.1
  • Use the graphs produced by the accelerometer to describe, measure and analyze acceleration motion in two dimensions. Be able to explain this acceleration in terms of displacement and acceleration. Indiana State Academic Science Standard P.1.2 (This standard can be taken farther to measure and analyze acceleration motion in three dimensions with the QCN accelerometer).
  • Be able to describe and quantify energy in different mechanical forms, including kinetic, gravitational, and elastic potential. Indiana State Academic Science Standard P.2.4
  • Recognize that the mechanical forms of energy are evident in an earthquake and drive its destructive consequences.Indiana State Academic Science Standard P.2.4
  • You may choose to have students maintain a notebook as a record of observations, predictions, and conclusions.

Material List


See instructions at ( on how to obtain, set up and use the QCN accelerometer.

  1. This lesson plan and the other plans referenced herein can be tailored to meet your specific needs. Multiple principles of science and engineering are involved with earthquakes and the energy they store and release upon societies.
  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 an earthquake.
  4. Attach the accelerometer to your computer and run the software. The software records the input and displays it in units of gravitational acceleration (e.g. 0.2g, which is 20% of gravitational acceleration; 9.8 m/s2 or 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 9-10.RS.3, 11-12.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):
    4. Exploring three-component seismic data with accelerometers (by IRIS):
    5. How ‘hard’ does the ground shake during an earthquake? (by Michael Hubenthal):
  6. While experimenting with the seismometer you may choose to discuss how the function of a seismometer shows the relationship between different forms of mechanical energy (i.e. a fault stores up elastic energy that is released in kinetic form through wave propagation, which accelerates the seismometer that records the accelerations as a function of gravitational force).


  • 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.

Links and Resources


Pre Activity Assessment

  • Prepare the students with lessons and research topics related to plate tectonics, as appropriate.
  • Have students research the meaning of the following terms (Indiana State Academic Science Standard 9-10.RS.4, 9-10.RS.5): 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 9-10.WS.1, 9-10.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.
  • Provide follow-on research assignments pertaining to earthquake historical records, possible and historical effects of, or reports on specific significant past earthquakes. (
  • Assign students to analyze the ground acceleration records of past earthquakes and compare with more recent ones. (
  • From the research of historic earthquakes, have students write reports that interpret the meaning and content of tables, charts, and other seismic records available.
  • Indiana State Academic Science Standard 9-10.WS.2, 9-10.RS.7, 9-10.WS.4, 9-10.WS.5, 9-10.WS.6, 9-10.WS.7, 9-10.WS.8, 9-10.WS.9, 11-12.WS.2, 11-12.WS.4, 11-12.WS.5, 11-12.WS.6, 11-12.WS.7, 11-12.WS.8, 11-12.WS.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.

Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Jason Lloyd; NEES EOT (2011), "Make Your Own Earthquake: Grade 9 - 12 Lesson Plan,"

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