Earthquake Machine


Why is it important to learn about the stick-slip behavior of faults and why earthquakes happen? More than 143 million people are exposed to potential earthquake hazards in the U.S. that could cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars in damage. An understanding of earthquakes and their unpredictability is fundamental to earthquake hazard mitigation.

The Earthquake Machine is a simple model that helps learners visualize the inputs and outputs of an active fault system that leads to earthquakes.

The Earthquake Machine Part 1 introduces the basics of the model through a qualitative approach, whereas in Part 2 learners take quantitative measurements to explore earthquake frequency and magnitude.

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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
  • Illustrate the role of models in the process of science
  • Make claims supported by evidence about earthquake magnitude and frequency

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) 876kB Sep10 22)
Earthquake Machine Activity Part 2 (Acrobat (PDF) 1MB Sep10 22)

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