Earthquake Machine


In this activity, learners work collaboratively in small groups to explore the earthquake cycle by using a physical model. Attention is captured through several short video clips illustrating the awe-inspiring power of ground shaking resulting from earthquakes. To make students' prior knowledge explicit and activate their thinking about the topic of earthquakes, each student writes their definition of an earthquake on a sticky note. Next, through a collaborative process, small groups of students combine their individual definitions to create a consensus definition for an earthquake.

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This activity could be done with most any novice geoscience learning group from late elementary through secondary or even early college. It can also work for informal education or public outreach venues as a demonstration or interactive.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

It is best if the learners have some knowledge of the existence of plate tectonics and earthquakes. It works well to do this activity just after Fault Models.

How the activity is situated in the course

Generally it would make sense to have this fairly early in learning about plate tectonics and earthquakes.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Learners will be able to:
  • Summarize the earthquake cycle
  • Use the Earthquake Machine model to demonstrate the causes of earthquakes, noting the flow of energy through the system
  • Illustrate the role of models in the process of science

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Compare and contrast the ways the Earthquake Machine model does and does not represent reality
  • Critically analyze data generated by the Earthquake Machine and use the data to develop an evidence-based response regarding the claim (Part 2)

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Working in groups
  • Using physical models

Description and Teaching Materials

See attached file for educator notes, NGSS alignment, links to supporting resources, and student exercise, and answer key.

Earthquake Machine Activity Part 1 (Acrobat (PDF) 254kB Apr2 19)
Earthquake Machine Activity Part 2 (Acrobat (PDF) 1.4MB Apr2 19)

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • It can take a bit of time to make a set of earthquakes machine models enough for classroom and larger group of people. Be sure to experiment with different types of sandpaper. It generally needs to be fairly course to work well. Belt sander paper can be pretty effective. Although duct taping it to a table is quick, the models will last longer if the sandpaper is stapled to a board.
  • A larger version of the Earthquake Machine model will be more effective for larger groups demonstrations. Some people have even designed them with winches to enable more consistent strain rate (ex. Starting Point Earthquake Demonstration


The student exercise serves as the summative assessment for the activity. Most questions have clearly correct answers. Alternatively, if the activity is being used for a demonstration or informal interactive activity, questions and discussions with learners can help the presenter gauge the level of understanding and to address misconceptions.

References and Resources