Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

All Shook Up


K20 Center, Teresa Randall, Quentin Biddy | Published: May 25th, 2022 by K20 Center


Students will examine various forms of earthquake data, ranging from intensity, magnitude, and first-person accounts, to explore which factors contribute to earthquake damage and how geologists use this information to pinpoint the epicenter and focus of an earthquake. Students will look at USGS data and analyze first-person accounts and damage reports to determine earthquake intensity. They will also view an interview with a geologist.

Essential Question(s)

What resources do geologists use to study earthquakes?



Students examine both a visual and an audio representation of the seismic waves recorded from the 2011 Japanese earthquake. Students discuss how these representations relate to ground movement during an earthquake and what information they might provide a scientist.


Students read interviews from individuals who experienced the 1994 Northridge earthquake, detailing the damage and what happened during the quake. Students play the role of a USGS scientist analyzing the data and determining the earthquake intensity by zip code.


Students present their findings from the Explore section. Students compare the types of earthquake waves, the manner in which these waves function, and how they relate to damage at the surface.


Students watch an interview with a geologist and then jigsaw a set of articles from various news sources and the USGS describing earthquakes around the globe. Students analyze the key information regarding each earthquake's magnitude, intensity, epicenter, and focus. Students will summarize the data from each article.


Students take on the role of a science reporter by writing a news article covering an earthquake, using key academic vocabulary and concepts relating to seismology and including survivor interviews.


  • Earthquake Intensity (attached, 1 per group, handout pages 1-5 and 7 only, page 6 is answer key)

  • Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale (attached, 1 per group)

  • Colored pencils

  • Sticky notes

  • Slinky (1 per group if possible)

  • Earthquake articles (links to 4 examples included in slides)

  • News Article Analysis (attached, 1 per student)

  • Rubric (attached, 1 per student)


Use slides 3 and 4 to introduce the essential question and lesson objectives to students.

Go to slide 5. Show students the sculpture created from the Tohoku Japanese earthquake's seismic wave. Ask students to come up with and discuss descriptive words and possible meanings for the sculpture with their Elbow Partner. After students share their thoughts, go to slide 6 to provide information about how and why it was created.

Go to slide 7. Have students listen to this audio version of the same seismic wave (or you may choose this one). Begin by asking students to answer the following questions on a sticky note: How do scientists measure earthquakes? What do scientists learn from these measurements? How do scientists use these measurements?

Ask students to do a Commit and Toss with their answers. Next, ask a few volunteers to share the answers on the sticky note they picked up.


Go to slide 8 to show students the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale, and explain how this scale is used and how it differs from the Moment Magnitude scale or Richter scale. Slide 9 and the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale Handout give an expanded description of the scale. Ask students what they notice about the amount of damage as the numbers increase.

Go to slide 10. Explain to students that they will be playing the role of a United States Geological Survey (USGS) geologist who is surveying the damage from a recent earthquake. Tell them they will be reading first-person accounts describing what occurred during the earthquake and the damage caused. They will use this information to assign an intensity value based on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale.

Arrange students in groups of 3-4, and give each group a copy of the Earthquake Intensity Handout and a Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale Handout. (The Earthquake Intensity Handout includes a blank Northridge map, the colored MMI scale, and Northridge first-person narratives. Give pages 1-5 and 7 to students, but do not give them page 6 yet, as that is the answer key.) Explain to students that in their group, they will be reading the accounts for each zip code affected by the earthquake and coloring in the map according to these accounts. Have each group analyze the first-person accounts and, based off of the MMI Scale, assign an intensity value to each zip code. Assign roles to the students within groups to accomplish the various tasks (e.g., reading, interpreting the scale, coloring the map, etc.).

Have students use colored pencils to code the intensity scale at the bottom based on the colors in the answer key. A standard pack of colored pencils should have the appropriate colors to match the scale, but you can adjust the colors as necessary. Regardless of which colors are available, identify the colors your students will be using in advance to standardize what they see on their peers' maps when they complete the Gallery Walk later in the lesson.


Go to slide 12. Prepare students to do a Gallery Walk by having them hang their finished maps on the wall. Students will take a few minutes to walk from map to map investigating the work of the other groups. The goal will be to compare and contrast their findings and decisions about earthquake intensity. Have the students discuss in their groups whether the maps were similar or different and explain why they might be different even though every group used the same data.

Go to slide 13. Ask the students: What pieces of data were you using to determine the intensity at different locations?

Ask the students: What caused the actual damage during the earthquake? Next, ask them: If the earthquake's epicenter was miles away from us, how is it possible for us to feel the ground move?

Go to slide 14. Introduce the idea of seismic waves if the students do not mention them first. Explain to the students that two types of seismic waves occur during an earthquake: P waves (primary) and S waves (secondary). Click on "P waves" in the slide to show students a video of what this type of wave looks like. Then click on "S waves" to show them a video of what this type of wave looks like. Demonstrate the motion related to these waves using a Slinky.

In their notebooks or on pieces of paper, have the students write a description and draw a model (diagram) of each type of wave they observe using the Slinky.


Go to slide 15. Show students the video of an interview with a geologist. Inform students that they will continue to serve as geologists in a new activity for the remainder of the lesson.

Go to slide 16. Students will remain in their groups from earlier in the lesson. Each group will select an earthquake to research, and then each student in the group should read a different article about that earthquake. Ask students to use CUS and Discuss to circle new words, underline key details, and star main ideas. You may also choose to use another analytical reading strategy to have students analyze their article. Give each student a News Article Analysis handout to document their article findings. Each student will share what they learned from their article with the group.

Information the students will be looking for in each article includes:

  • Where did the earthquake take place?

  • Where was the epicenter?

  • What was the magnitude of the earthquake?

  • What time was it when the earthquake hit?

  • What type of damage occurred?

  • Thinking as a geologist, how would you explain the severity of damage?

Go to slide 17 to recommend some videos about recent earthquakes to students. They may choose their earthquake from this list, or they may have another in mind they'd like to research. Recommendations include: 2019 Ridgecrest earthquakes (California), 2020 Caribbean (Jamaica), 2016 Oklahoma, and 2017 Greenland. You may also wish to direct students to this site about Oklahoma earthquakes.

Have the groups share out the information they found about their earthquake with the class through a class discussion.


Go to slide 18. Students will now put themselves in the shoes of a scientific news reporter and write a news article covering a fictional earthquake. The earthquake they are reporting on has a magnitude between 6 and 9 on the Richter scale. It can be located anywhere in the world in any type of setting (e.g., urban, rural, or suburban).

Give students a copy of the Rubric to guide the development of their news article. Instruct students to include the following key information about the earthquake in their news article:

  • Epicenter and location

  • Time and date it occurred

  • Magnitude

  • Descriptions of the damage

  • 3-5 first-person accounts of some of the survivors