Earthquake! A Term Paper and Presentation Assignment

Laura Reiser Wetzel
Eckerd College
Author Profile


In this writing and oral presentaion assignment, students are challenged to assess a building site for a fictitious organization, the Society for Earthquake Enthusiasts. Each student must choose a historically significant earthquake, determine the likelihood of another deadly earthquake at the site in his or her lifetime, and persuade the Society to build or not to build their new headquarters at that location. The primary strength of this exercise is that it extends throughout the semester, with a letter proposing a site due early in the semester, a historical background paper due mid-semester, and a final report and oral presentation due at the end of the semester.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



I have used this assignment for a number of years in an undergraduate structural geology course for Marine Science majors specializing in Marine Geology or Marine Geophysics.
Integrates geophysics into a core course in geology

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

This activity is designed as a sequence of excercises so that students may choose an earthquake and write a brief letter early in the semester. By mid-semester, before the historical background paper is due, I have lectured on basic concepts in seismology (e.g., magnitude scales, energy release, locations). By the end of the semester, I have lectured on faults, stress, strain, and plate tectonics.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is designed as a sequence of exercises that extends throughout the semester, with a letter proposing a site due early in the semester, a historical background paper due mid-semester, and a final report and oral presentation due at the end of the semester.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

In the structural geology class, students learn about faults, stress, strain, and plate tectonics. Students integrate concepts from all of these areas in their final papers and oral presentations. For earthquakes more recent than 1977, students must find and interpret a focal mechanism solution from the Global CMT catalog on-line. Students must comment specifically on the plate tectonic context of a historically significant earthquake and provide a current seismicity map of the area, which is often from the IRIS website.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

This is not simply a writing assignment, but is designed as a persuasive paper. Students must think about their information and decide whether or not they would be willing to live in that area based on the potential of a devastating earthquake in their lifetime.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students develop the following skills in this assignment: (1) Students conduct traditional background research using primary sources. (2) Students learn how to write and format a standard business letter. (3) Students develop their persuasive writing skills. (4) Students give oral presentations.

Description of the activity/assignment

To focus their research, students are presented with the following hypothetical situation:
Suppose you and your classmates are members of an organization that is looking for a site to build a new headquarters. As the Society for Earthquake Enthusiasts (SEE), you plan to put your headquarters at the site of a historically significant earthquake. You are not looking to put yourselves at risk, however, and are therefore looking for a safe location. You have decided that a safe site is one that will not produce a deadly earthquake in your lifetime (i.e., in the next 80 years).

Students complete a series of assignments throughout the semester to demonstrate their understanding of structural geology by writing papers and giving an oral presentation. First, a letter proposing a site is due early in the semester, next a historical background paper is due mid-semester, and finally a persuasive report and oral presentation are due at the end of the semester.
Has minimal/no quantitative component

Determining whether students have met the goals

I provide the students with checklists for what I expect in each writing assignment as well as my oral presentation evaluation tool. (All are provided here as WORD files.) I fill out the checklists and provide final grades in each case. I also provide a grading rubric in the original assignment. One of the advantages of having a stepped assignment is that I return their first letter before they complete the second paper so that they can improve their work. Students may also incorporate any appropriate material from the first and second assignments in their final paper. In this way, students consider my comments on the first assignments as they prepare their final paper rather than simply looking at the grade early in the semester and moving on without reflecting on their work.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials