Using Teachable Moments to Engage the General Public and Foster Learning in Seismology

Mike Brudzinski, Miami University, and Allison Jaeger, Temple University

published Apr 7, 2017 10:30am

Historically, there has been a major disconnect between scientists and the general public such that many scientists have felt that promoting their findings to the public via social media and news is not relevant for their own career goals. Rather than directly sharing their findings with public audiences via social media, many scientists focus their efforts on producing high profile publications of key science findings assuming this will lead to news media coverage, raise the profile of their work, and in turn lead to education and outreach opportunities. Because of the recent anti-science movement and debates around high profile issues such as climate change and vaccines, the explicit need for scientific research to be effectively communicated with the general public is greater than ever. As such, members of the science community have begun to recognize the growing necessity for science outreach to communicate the impact of government-funded science on society (Pham, 2016).

In today's global society where most information is accessed via the Internet, scientists have begun to communicate their discoveries and findings via webpages and social media outlets (McClain & Neeley, 2014). Because websites and social media outlets are a main source for conveying descriptions of scientific research and providing education and outreach material for the general public, a primary question is how to more effectively bring audiences to these sites and engage the visitors. While social media is often used to draw attention to scientific information, fostering optimal attention and broad interaction requires building an extensive social media following or partnering (You, 2014).

One potentially fruitful direction for drawing attention to scientific information and issues is through teachable moments. Naturally occurring or unplanned events that provide opportunity for learning are often referred to as teachable moments. In the field of seismology, it has been recognized for some time that large earthquakes are not only newsworthy, but also generate large increases in public attention to the science of seismology. In a typical learning cycle, the initial phase is one that promotes the learner to become engaged in the new concept. In many ways, earthquakes serve as a naturally occurring engagement phase because the learners' curiosity is raised, prior knowledge becomes activated, and learners then seek explanatory information to fill their knowledge gaps (Bybee et al., 2006). As such, earthquakes may represent teachable moments that can be used to draw audiences to informational webpages about seismology. In fact, research has shown that there are substantial increases in website traffic and mailing list subscriptions for seismology resources directly following large earthquake events (Schwarz, 2004), with recent events exceeding 200,000 daily pageviews. Because of this sharp (but fleeting) increase in interest and awareness to seismology following earthquakes, it has been suggested that there may be approximately a 2-week window where education and outreach efforts would be most effective (Schwarz, 2004), but this time frame could be variable given the limited testing of this idea.

In response to this idea, the Education and Outreach division of the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) has developed a Teachable Moments program. The overarching goal of this program is to use the increased attention to seismology following an earthquake to help students understand the underlying causes and mechanisms at play during such an event (Bravo et al., 2011). IRIS uses an algorithm to decide whether any new earthquake reaches an appropriate size (typically magnitude 7 or larger) and significance to be deemed a potential teachable moment.

In those cases, educators and seismologists are on-call to prepare education materials within hours of the event that "capture that unplanned opportunity to bring knowledge, insight, and critical thinking to the classroom following a newsworthy earthquake." These materials include interpreted USGS regional tectonic maps and summaries, computer animations, seismograms, AP photos, links to additional reports, and other event-specific information. These various resources are combined, along with annotations for the presenter/viewer, into a presentation in PowerPoint format. Users can subscribe to this service in order to receive notifications when new products are ready. There is also a web archive of this material for 100 earthquakes since 2011.

IRIS has developed other data products meant to use noteworthy seismic events as opportunities for learning. Specifically, Ground Motion Visualizations (GMVs) have developed widespread popularity among geoscience educators (Trabant et al. 2012). These animations show ground motions in vertical and/or horizontal directions caused by seismic waves as they pass across a very large network of seismometers.

Much like watching ripples in a pond, GMVs are visually enticing and create an opportunity for the audience to feel like they are watching an "instant replay" of the earthquake. As a result, these animations are often the most popular product that IRIS produces following an earthquake. The figure below shows the timeline of IRIS data products accessed by the general public following the magnitude 5.6 September 3, 2016 earthquake in Oklahoma. The GMV generated nearly 10,000 unique views, over 10 times larger than any other product IRIS offers, although most of the other products are intended for scientific analysis and not designed for general public consumption.
graph for Teachable Moments

While earthquakes appear to be teachable moments in that they prompt the public to seek information explaining how and why these phenomena occur, there is very little research on how effective these moments are for teaching students the underlying mechanisms involved in the phenomenon. Similarly, both the Teachable Moments Program and the GMVs are popular tools, but there remain many open questions about their effectiveness for helping students develop correct causal models about earthquakes.

Some important unanswered questions include determining if earthquake education is more effective during these teachable moments compared to other times, and if they are, what is the impetus for this greater learning (e.g., improved attention, motivation, etc.). Educational research has focused on the geosciences considering the high demand for spatial thinking skills. Therefore, it is natural to wonder if using teachable moments and the affiliated tools demonstrates various levels of effectiveness depending on the learners' spatial thinking skills or if these experiences can help to develop one's spatial thinking skills. For example, a key question regarding GMVs is whether they can create improved geospatial reasoning, or whether assignments and instruction can be created to do so. One, two, and three-dimensional versions have been compiled, including those that combine multiple earthquakes from the same source location to create SuperGMVs that illustrate seismic waves rolling across the entire USA. The variety of materials available to interested users provides an opportunity to take a closer look at how these teachable moments produce improved understanding.

If the Geosciences and Education research communities work together through research initiatives to determine how best to take advantage of these teachable moments for fostering deep understanding of scientific phenomena, perhaps a wider and more diverse audience can be reached. Now more than ever, scientific issues confront our communities and are at the forefront of policy decisions. It is critical that we as a research community prioritize finding ways to improve engagement of public audiences in scientific ideas and ways of thinking.


Bravo, T. Hubenthal, M.,Wysession, M., Butler, R. (2011). Educational Aftershocks: Engage Students with Rapid-Response Resources. In The Trenches. 1(4), 4-7.

Bybee, R. W., Taylor, J. A., Gardner, A., Van Scotter, P., Powell, J. C., Westbrook, A., & Landes, N. (2006). The BSCS 5E instructional model: Origins and effectiveness. Colorado Springs, Co: BSCS, 5, 88-98.

McClain, C., & Neeley, L. (2014). A critical evaluation of science outreach via social media: its role and impact on scientists. F1000Research, 3.

Pham, D. (2016). Public engagement is key for the future of science research. NPJ Science of Learning, 1, 16010.

Schwarz, S. (2004). Cyberseismology and teachable moments. Seismological Research Letters, 75(6), 749-750.

Trabant, C., Hutko, A. R., Bahavar, M., Karstens, R., Ahern, T., & Aster, R. (2012). Data products at the IRIS DMC: Stepping stones for research and other applications. Seismological Research Letters, 83(5), 846-854.

You, J. (2014). Who are the science stars of Twitter?. Science, 345(6203), 1440-1441.

Comment? Start the discussion about Using Teachable Moments to Engage the General Public and Foster Learning in Seismology