Engaging Students in the Analysis and Interpretation of Seismic Data

Tammy Bravo, Education and Outreach, IRIS Consortium

The IRIS Consortium, in partnership with its member institutions and the scientific community, manages and operates comprehensive, high-quality geophysical facilities that enable exciting discoveries in seismology and the Earth sciences. IRIS's Education and Public Outreach (EPO) program works to enhance seismology and Earth Science education in K-12 schools, colleges, universities, and the general public. IRIS EPO actively partners with other organizations to extend its impact on more diverse populations and wider audiences.

Seismology offers unique opportunities to enrich earth science and physics curriculum, involving students in questioning and problem solving. Earthquakes provide engaging real-world examples of scientific concepts. Real-time seismic data can be used to explore earthquakes, plate tectonics and its driving forces. In physics classrooms seismic data can be used to teach lessons on force, friction, wave propagation, and engineering design. IRIS EPO has worked to design lessons, software, web tools, data viewers, and other resources to allow students to engage with, explore, and interrogate shaking using real seismic data.

The IRIS Earthquake Browser (IEB) is an interactive map for exploring millions of earthquake epicenters on a map of the world. Selections of up to 5000 events can also be viewed in profile and freely rotated with the 3D Viewer companion tool. No plugins (like Flash or Java) are required. These selections can also be viewed as sortable tables and exported to Excel. IEB is IRIS's most accessible and easiest to use data set. It allows basic comparison of seismicity patterns to plate boundaries but can also be quantitative, for example, estimating seismic hazard for a region.

For a higher level of engagement, we initially used the AmaSeis software, which allowed classrooms to work with recent, locally-recorded seismograms. It was successful, but limited, requiring a PC and an educational seismometer in the classroom. To increase our reach, we funded the development of jAmaSeis, a java-based program that allows users to obtain and display seismic data in real-time from either a local seismometer, a remote educational seismometer connected to the jAmaSeis network, or any research-quality seismometer that streams data to the IRIS Data Management Center. Users can also filter data, fit a seismogram to travel time curves, triangulate event epicenters on a globe, estimate event magnitudes, and generate images showing seismograms and corresponding calculations. This cross-platform iteration dramatically increased use, and is currently being used in classrooms internationally. However, before we even completed development, we were already behind as more classrooms are moving to 1-to-1 devices, and no longer want to download software. Recently, IRIS developed a web-based/app seismic data viewer, Station Monitor, providing access to continuous, real-time ground motion from hundreds of locations around the globe, allowing student interactions with seismic waves. Development is still needed to convert the analysis tools available in jAmaSeis to web-based applications.

After working to get real-time seismic data into the hands of students, we worked to create curriculum to guide students through the use of the tools and software that we developed. We quickly learned the transition to real-time data adds significant complexity. Our data activities require critical thinking and background knowledge in earthquake concepts and basic mathematics. While we offer a sequence of activities to help students develop the knowledge and skills that would allow them to interpret data and draw conclusions, classroom time dedicated to earth science concepts is often limited. This can lead to limited time dedicated to the analysis and interpretation of real-time seismic data.

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