Pasta Quake & Earthquake Magnitude

Paul Doherty (Exploratorium Teacher Institute) and Roger Groom (Mt Tabor Middle School) with improvements by ShakeAlert

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: May 24, 2018


This short activity provides an intuitive introduction to earthquake magnitude using an everyday item--spaghetti. Learners are introduced to the earthquake magnitude scale by breaking different amounts of uncooked noodles. Visual scale of the pasta emphasizes the relative differences between magnitudes steps. For older students, the demonstration helps students understand why seismologists use the nonlinear logarithmic scale to best graph the huge range of quantities.



This activity could be done with introductory geoscience learners 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

Learners should already know what earthquakes are.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity would probably be best midway through a unit on plate tectonics and earthquakes.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Learners will be able to
  • Define the difference between Richter Magnitude, Moment Magnitude, and Intensity
  • Explain the energy difference between different Moment Magnitude steps.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Not applicable

Other skills goals for this activity

Older students will be able to learn a practical application of logarithmic scales.

Description and Teaching Materials

See attached file for educator notes, NGSS alignment, links to supporting resources, student exercise, and answer key.
Pasta Quake Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 481kB Apr2 19)

Two animations which strongly support activity concepts:

Teaching Notes and Tips

Materials needed for a full demonstration of Magnitudes 5 to 9:

  • Single strand of spaghetti for each learner plus some extras (Mag 5)
  • One or more bundles of 32 strands (Mag 6). If you are using this just as a visual aid, one rubberbanded bundle is enough. Have additional bundles if you want learners to have the chance to "make" a Mag 6 earthquake themselves. (note: pasta fragments will scatter everywhere so it may help to break it over a tray or tub)
  • One bundle of ~1024 strands (Mag 7). (note: this is about 2 pounds for standard spaghetti)
  • Circle ~15 inches across (Mag 8). This represents the approximate cross-sectional area of 32x1024=32,768 spaghetti strands. Tarp material or plastic sheeting works well.
  • Circle ~7 feet across (Mag 9). This is the approximate cross-sectional area of 32x32,768=1,048,576 spaghetti strands. Tarp material, plastic sheeting, or perhaps a round table cloth can work well.


The student worksheet, if used, serves as the summative assessment for the activity. The questions have clearly correct answers. However, some instructors may choose to just use this activity as a demonstration instead of do a formal assessment. If that is the case or if one is working with an informal audience, learner understanding can be gathered from questions to and discussions with small groups or the whole group.

References and Resources