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Earthquake Waves and Propagation Through a Surface

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Purpose: To give students a demonstration of how earthquake waves propagate through the earth using a Quake Catcher Network (QCN) device to record the material response.


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.

The 12 earthquake activity modules are summarized below:


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. Both P-waves and S-waves travel faster through high-density rocks like granite than they do through low-density materials like soil or sand. When these waves pass through unconsolidated (loose) soil or sediment, the waves slow down and are amplified; wave height increases. S-waves cannot travel through liquids.

The study of seismic waves as they travel through the Earth has been used to determine the Earth's interior structure. Through careful study of seismograms, scientists have found that seismic waves change as they travel through the Earth. In analyzing the changes in seismic waves scientists were able to determine the different layers of Earth’s crust and core.

Los Angeles is a problem area for earthquake engineers because downtown LA is built on a sand basin, filled with loose material eroded from the local mountain range. When an earthquake travels through the area, the basin acts as a “bowl of jelly” where the waves reverberate back and forth between the solid rock mountains surrounding the basin. In this experiment, the students will be able to witness the shoebox vibrations (acting as a loose material) and the table vibrations (acting as a stiff material) and they can compare the difference between the two sets of vibrations.

Learning Objectives and Standards

  • Students will have a demonstration of the effect of earthquake wave propagation on the surrounding soil/rock materials.
  • Students should understand the difference in vibration between waves traveling through a loose material vs. waves traveling through a stiff material.

California Educational Standards, Grade 4 & 5:


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

5. 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

“breaks in the Earth’s crust, called faults, experience slow movement called creep, and rapid movement that cause earthquakes.

Standard Set 6:
Investigation and Experimentation

6. 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

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

e. construct and interpret graphs from measurements

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



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

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

Material List

Materials Needed:




Note: Before starting this activity, practice using the “Make Your Own Earthquake” software with the QCN device.

  1. Place the shoebox on a table upside-down, so that the bottom of the shoebox is on top.
  2. Pour the popcorn kernels on the flat surface of the shoebox and try to spread them in an even layer.
  3. Place the QCN device on the flat surface of the shoebox.
  4. Start the “Make Your Own Earthquake” QCN recording and gently tap the ruler on the top of the box. Make sure that the kernels move.
  5. Observe the motion of the kernels.
  6. When the recording has stopped after 10 seconds, save the data to a file on the computer.
  7. Place the QCN device on a sturdy table. Evenly pour the kernels on the table around the QCN device.
  8. Start recording the QCN device and tap the ruler on the surface of the table. After 10 seconds, save the data.
  9. Ask the students to observe the different patterns of vibration from the table vs. the shoebox. Which surface experienced more vibrations (more motion of the popcorn)? Which surface would be better for a house during an earthquake?


The kernels start to vibrate and move when the shoebox is tapped by the ruler. The longer you tap on the shoebox, the farther the kernels travel. The Richter scale, which assigns a magnitude to earthquakes, uses measurements of ground shaking. More shaking = bigger earthquake. Wave propagate faster through the solid table and the stiffness of the table doesn’t allow for much vibration to disrupt the popcorn kernels.

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, as a surface wave of water

Example Experimental Data:

In comparing the two different surfaces it is easier to compare the Z axis if hitting in the up down motion (along the z axis). If the shoebox or table is hit on the side make sure to use the axis that hits run parallel to. The QCN device has the X, Y and Z axis labeled to help you determine what chart to compare.

These graphs are created in excel by using the actual data collected from running the experiment. However, the “10 second, make your own earthquake” provided on the QCN software will create the graphs for you. The excel graph just took it a little further, and you can isolate single occurrences if you would like to be able to zoom in for a student. The QCN device manual explains how to import the data into excel.


Extra Resources

Video of waves:

Learning modules in this series:



Beyond the Experiment:

Attach the QCN device to the student’s desired surface. Conduct the same ruler hitting experiment. How does this new surface compare to the difference between a shoebox and a table?


Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Sandra Seale; Heidi Pence; NEES EOT (2011), "Earthquake Waves and Propagation Through a Surface,"

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