Human Wave: Modeling P and S Waves


Lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, learners are the medium that P and S waves travel through in this simple, but effective demonstration. Once "performed", the principles of P and S waves will not be easily forgotten. This demonstration explores two of the four main ways energy propagates from the hypocenter of an earthquake as P and S seismic waves. The physical nature of the Human Wave demonstration makes it a highly engaging kinesthetic learning activity that helps students grasp, internalize and retain abstract information.

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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 an interactive demonstration.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

It is best if the learners have some knowledge of earthquakes. This activity goes well in sequence after with Fault Models and Earthquake Machine. Can serve as a good introductory activity for Seismic Slinky Activity

How the activity is situated in the course

This should probably come after a general introduction to plate tectonics but can be fairly early in learning about earthquakes.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Learners will be able to

  • Distinguish between P and S waves based on:
    • speed
    • direction of particle motion relative to wave propagation
    • materials through which they propagate
  • Explain molecularly, why S waves are not able to travel in a liquid, whereas P waves are able to travel in a liquid
  • Explain how P and S waves provide evidence for Earth's interior

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Not applicable

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Using and explaining physical models of natural processes
  • Recording measurements, averaging, and graphing.

Description and Teaching Materials

See attached file for educator notes, NGSS alignment, and student exercise.

Human Wave: Modeling P and S Waves Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 1.2MB Apr2 19)
Video of a class doing the human wave activity (MP4 Video 52.1MB Sep10 22)

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • Depending on the maturity of your students, this demonstration may work best with homogeneous grouping by gender.
  • Since this is a kinesthetic demonstration, it may not be appropriate for some students with physical disabilities to participate.


The student exercise serves as the summative assessment for the activity. The answers are short but open ended so the instructor should develop a simple couple-point scale for evaluating the completeness of each answer. 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