Know Your Boundaries: Earthquake Lessons in the Classroom

With all the recent attention on Haiti, and now Chile, it is the perfect time to teach your students about earthquakes!

By Jennifer Sinsel

earthquake lesson plans

On January 12, 2010, a massive earthquake struck Haiti and devastated its capital city of Port-au-Prince.  Casualties currently number in the hundreds of thousands, and a tremendous outpouring of support has occurred from people all over the world who have donated time, money, and talent to assist those in need.  With Haiti receiving so much media coverage, many teachers are using the tragedy as a teachable moment for educating students about earthquakes, plate tectonics, and earthquake safety.   

Elementary children have an amazing capacity for empathy, and after the earthquake first occurred, my students were full of questions.  They wanted to understand what had happened, and they also wanted to know what they could do to help.  The first thing we did was research plate boundaries, which allowed us to see that the edge of the Caribbean plate runs right through the country of Haiti, creating a strike-slip fault line.  We then located a list of recent earthquakes on the United States Geological Survey website and plotted them on a world map. This allowed kids to see outlines of plate boundaries and how they match up with major earthquakes worldwide. Students were able to draw their own conclusions about where future earthquakes might occur, and we later conducted a number of activities involving different types of faults, locating an epicenter, and designing earthquake-proof structures (see resources below) that further enhanced their understanding of earthquakes.

As a culminating activity, my students decided to assist earthquake victims by helping package food that would be shipped directly to Haiti through the Numana organization.  We donned hairnets, aprons, and gloves and packaged nearly 1000 fortified meals that will help provide relief to Haitian families. Your students can feel like they’re making a difference by raising money or donating their time through organizations such as Numana, the local Red Cross, or the Salvation Army World Service Office.

Earthquake Lesson Plans:

Earthquakes Rock!  

Students study the main methods to measure earthquakes, the Richter Scale and Mercalli Scale. They make a model seismograph and do research on which structural designs are most likely to withstand an earthquake.

Earthquake Epicenter

Pupils use chart data to determine the location of the epicenter of an earthquake. This task evaluates students' abilities to infer, organize data, interpret data, and apply mathematical concepts.

TRB 5:2 - Activity 3: Earthquakes

The class watches a classroom demonstration and experiment to discover the five ways that Earth's crust shifts along a fault.

Earthquake Formation   

Students learn about the earth's structure and examine what causes earthquakes. Using clay, they construct models to explore the earth's layers. They also build models of the three types of faults.  Following a teacher demonstration, they complete a math activity by calculating continental drift over time.

Earthquake Safety and Building Design:

Building for the Big One

Learners build and test structures that can best withstand earthquakes. They create their structures from playdough, cornstarch, grape-nuts and popsicle sticks and place their structures on a "shake table."

Earthquake City!

Young scholars construct small cities made of sugar cubes, bullion cubes, and gelatin cubes. They experiment with the cubes in order to determine which materials hold up the best against a simulated earthquake. Students explain how earthquake magnitude is measured.


Discussion Question:

What activities do you do to teach your pupils about earthquakes?

Elementary Science Guide

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Jennifer Sinsel