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To give students a visual example, using a slinky, of how an energy wave propagates through the Earth.


K-12 Earthquake Activity Teaching Modules

A Joint Project of the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) and the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC)

In the spring of 2011, NEES at the University of California Santa Barbara (NEES@UCSB) embarked on a project to develop a comprehensive set of teaching modules for K-12 students that would cover the basics of plate tectonics and earthquake dynamics The idea for the project grew from the success of the "Make Your Own Earthquake" outreach activity developed by NEES@UCSB, which recently has included the use of the Quake Catcher Network MEMS accelerometer.

The UCSB site received a supplemental grant for Education, Outreach, and Training from NEES that provided funds for an undergraduate student to work on this project. Two NEES REU interns and a SCEC intern were also recruited, for a total of four students working cooperatively on the project over the summer of 2011. NEES@UCSB personnel served as mentors to the students and a Santa Barbara GATE science teacher was hired, through the NEES EOT grant, as a consultant to review the work. The students were asked to incorporate, as appropriate, the use of the QCN accelerometer and real earthquake data in the teaching modules. They were also asked to do a comprehensive survey of earthquake-related teaching materials currently available and to incorporate, with proper references, any of these materials into the new modules.

Over the course of the summer of 2011, the students met weekly with their mentor and the science teacher. In August, a group of local 4th - 6th grade students came to the UCSB campus and tested several of the earthquake activities. The summer interns presented their work at the NEES REU Young Researchers Symposium at UCSB in August and at the annual SCEC meeting in Palm Springs in September.


Jamison Steidl, Ph.D., Principal Investigator, NEES@UCSB Sandra Seale, Ph.D., Project Scientist and Outreach Coordinator, NEES@UCSB Carrie Garner, M.A., Gifted and Talented Education Teacher and Coordinator, Hope School District

Summer Undergraduate Interns:

Sean Allen, Civil Engineering, University of Nevada, Reno Heidi Pence, Civil Engineering, University of Michigan Joseph Trudeau, Geology, University of Wisconsin Hanna Vincent, Mechanical Engineering and Materials, MIT

Earthquake Activity Modules:

4th - 5th Grade: Wave Propagation, Heidi Pence

[Be sure to click the "Docs and Attachments" tab to view and download attachments for this lesson such as handouts and worksheets.]

Earthquake Engineering Component

When an earthquake occurs, rock materials fail suddenly and the energy released travels in transverse and longitudinal waves. The first waves to propagate outwards are the P-waves (or primary waves). These waves travel faster due to their longitudinal form. The second wave set to propagate outwards is the S-waves (or secondary waves). The S-waves travel more slowly than the P-waves. This slinky demonstration was created to help students visualize the different patterns of these two wave forms.

Learning Objectives and Standards

  • Students should be able to create a picture of how a wave propagates.
  • Students will have a demonstration of the effect of earthquake wave propagation on the surrounding soil/rock materials.
  • The students should also understand that although the slinky can move upwards or downwards or side to side, the final location of the slinky doesn't change after the wave has passed.

California Educational Standards, Grade 4 & 5

Grade 4 & 5 Standards:


Standard Set 5: Earth Sciences (waves, wind, water, ice)

1. As a basis for understanding this concept:

a. Students know some changes in the earth are due to slow processes such as erosion and some changes are due to rapid processes such as landslides, volcanic eruption and earthquakes

Standard Set 6: Investigation and Experimentation

2. Scientific progress is made by asking meaningful questions and conducting careful investigations. Students will:

a. Differentiate observation from inference and how scientists' explanations come from both observation and interpretation

b. formulate and justify predictions based on cause-and-effect relationships

c. construct and interpret graphs from measurements

d. follow a set of written instructions for a scientific investigation.


Standard set 3: Earth Sciences (Earth's water)



Material List

Materials Needed:

  • 2 Student Helpers
  • Space to stretch a slinky 5 feet and propagate waves
  • Slinky
  • Stopwatch



1. Stretch out the slinky on the bench top (or in the air) and ask a pupil to hold the other end.

2. Take a few coils of the slinky in your hand and suddenly let them go. Have a student start the stopwatch and time the wave until the wave bounces back and returns. Record on attached worksheet. Repeat 3 times.

- This produces a "push-pull" motion in the coils of the spring and a wave can be seen travelling. (The wave will also reflect back and forth a few times). This is a longitudinal wave, known to seismologists as a P-wave (primary wave). It can also be visualized as a push-pull, or compression, wave.

3. Let the wave dissipate out of the slinky.

4. Now give the spring a sharp sideways shake. Have a student start the stopwatch and time the wave until the waves bounce back. Record and repeat 3 times.

- This produces a transverse wave, which will reach the far end and reflect back and forth as before. Such waves are always slower than the P waves and are known as S-waves (Secondary waves). They are also known as shear waves.


In the longitudinal wave the spring coils should look like a group traveling together through the length of the slinky. If this effect is not produced, try this portion of the experiment on a table.

For the transverse wave, the slinky should have a wave shape traveling through the slinky. You do not need to shake the slinky to keep the wave shape forming; there should be only one wave traveling back and forth between you and the student.

The students should be able to see the pattern illustrated below. Wave form (a) is P wave (Primary wave) and wave form (b) is the S wave (secondary wave).

Links and Resources


Longitudinal wave: a wave in which the direction of displacement is the same as the direction of propagation, as a sound wave.

Transverse wave: a wave in which the direction of displacement is perpendicular to the direction of propagation.


Ask the students to share what they think of when they hear the word wave. How are waves related to energy released in an earthquake? Relate sound waves to energy waves and energy waves to the wave types propagated during an earthquake.

Extra Resources

Slinky Experiment:

Video of waves:

Learning modules in this series:


See attached documents for Wave Propagation worksheet and answer key:



Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Sandra Seale; Heidi Pence; NEES EOT (2011), "Earthquake Waves,"

    BibTex | EndNote