Teach the Earth > Data, Simulations and Models > Workshop 03 > View Submissions > Earthquakes and Plate Boundaries: A Model EarthInquiry Activity

Earthquakes and Plate Boundaries: A Model EarthInquiry Activity

submitted by

Robert Ridky U.S. Geological Survey
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This is a partially developed activity description. It is included in the collection because it contains ideas useful for teaching even though it is incomplete.

This is one activity in a series of web-based modules that encourages introductory college students to use the abundant real-time and archived geoscience data available on-line.
GSA Poster (Acrobat (PDF) 26.4MB Oct31 03)

Learning Goals


Higher Order Thinking Skills:

Introductory students learn to collect, process, and interpret the data that "the real scientists" use.

Other Skills:


Instructional Level:

undergraduate entry level

Skills Needed:

EarthInquiry assumes that students are going to lecture and up-to-date with class. These activities are meant to supplement and "show-case" the concepts learned in class.

Role of Activity in a Course:

We find that instructors are using the activities in the lab, as homework assignments, or as extra credit assignments after a topic has been introduced.

Data, Tools and Logistics

Required Tools:

Students need access to a computer with an internet connection. A 56K modem or faster connection is fine. Students also need an EarthInquiry Booklet (available from Freeman Publishers). Most instructors order the booklets at the beginning of the semester and have students purchase them along with their textbook(s) at the bookstore.

Logistical Challenges:

If Instructors want access to student responses to on-line Assessment questions (approximately 10% of the activity), they need to create an Instructor account and register their course on-line. Students, then, are responsible for affiliating themselves with the course.

There are few challenges. The American Geological Institute offers student and faculty technical support. AGI updates the detailed instructions for accessing and interpreting the data on-line on a regular basis. AGI also stores its own copy of each dataset should the external data provider be unavailable. Answer sheets are provided with a range of possible answers.


Evaluation Goals:

We want to know if this activity is supplementing what Instructors are teaching in the classroom with minimal additional effort on the part of the Instructor.

Evaluation Techniques:

The feedback that we have received thus far has been positive.


In the Earthquakes and Plate Boundaries activity, students first learn about earthquakes as natural hazards, in terms of their cost, magnitude and global distribution. This understanding is established using short media excerpts and historical statistics. Students are then introduced to the USGS National Earthquake Information Center database. An "Earthquake Orientation" encourages students to look at recent worldwide earthquake activity. To become more comfortable with how earthquake data is recorded and displayed, students look at the extremes in earthquake depth and magnitude over the past week. They also consider how earthquake distribution largely coincides with plate boundaries. Following a brief summary of the different types of plate boundaries, the students once again access the NEIC data to examine a seismic cross-section in western South America. Using trends in hypocenter depth, an on-line plotting utility, and an "angle calculator," students quantify the angular relationship that exists along the cross-section and develop an understanding of how earthquake distribution can be used to express the geometric relationship between Earth's plates.

The focus of the activity then shifts north to the San Andreas Fault in California. Students compare and contrast the earthquake distribution observed in California to the distribution observed in South America. Finally, students investigate predicting earthquake hazards using spatial and temporal patterns in earthquake distribution. The Loma Prieta event (1989) is used to help demonstrate this concept.

The online Assessment has student consider the Parkfield Gap. Using what they have learned, they try to predict the next "big" earthquake at this location.

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