Geologic Hazards and the Built Environment

Jennifer Pickering, Alaska Pacific University and Anchorage School District
Bonnie Magura, ShakeAlert
Shelley Olds UNAVCO

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The "built environment" refers to the human-made physical spaces where we live, recreate and work, which includes buildings, furnishings, open and public spaces, roads, utilities and other infrastructure. Earthquake hazards to the built environment may come from geologic factors that cause increased ground motion and shaking due to the nature of underlying soils, liquefaction, landslides, and faulting. Additionally, hazards may be human caused in the way buildings and structures are designed, constructed or have been effectively mitigated to seismically strengthen existing structures.

In this activity, learners conduct collaborative research to better understand various factors that control damage experienced by the built environment of our communities during an earthquake. Learners identify potential vulnerabilities in the built environment and possible solutions.

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Depending on the resources and scaffolding provided for research, this activity is appropriate for middle school students and up.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Learners understand plate tectonics, the causes of earthquakes, and the difference between magnitude and intensity of shaking.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is an in-depth collaborative research project that provides learners with the necessary knowledge for a culminating project on a community hazard mitigation issue. Follow up this research project with the Geologic Hazard Community Action Plan (Capstone Project). These activities fit well within a larger unit on Plate Tectonics and/or Geologic Hazards.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Learners will:

  • Describe how various factors (i.e., construction design, zoning ordinances, preparedness planning) relate to damage incurred by parts (i.e. buildings, roads, dams) of the built environment during earthquakes
  • Identify a community preparedness vulnerability, challenges & constraints and possible solutions
  • Outline how the challenges and constraints impact decision-making and implementation of solutions.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Analysis and synthesis of information from different sources
  • Critical evaluation and prioritization of information

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Working in groups, speaking and listening

Description and Teaching Materials

The instructor guide below includes the lesson plan, student handouts and scoring rubric. Also provided here are the instructor presentation and editable Word versions of the handouts and rubric, as well as a compilation of potential resources for student research.


Geologic Hazards and the Built Environment Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 5.1MB Feb13 22)

Supporting presentation/audiovisual

Supporting files

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • There are a variety of options and extensions to this activity, allowing it to take anywhere from 1-4 days based on time and interest. See the Instructor Guide above for suggested pacing options. It is recommended that teachers preview the resources provided for research, and select a subset to provide to their learners, based on their skill level and the allotted time.
  • Precede this activity with Engaging With Earthquake Hazard and Risk, then follow up with the Geologic Hazards Community Action Plan for a culminating project to a unit on plate tectonics and geologic hazards.


Student groups share solutions in group presentations, which can be evaluated using the provided rubric (see Instructor Guide). Information from presentations is then summarized by all students in class.

References and Resources