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Subduction Zone Earthquakes

David Steer and Kyle Gray, University of Akron
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. GEO-0506518.

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Apr 29, 2008


Subduction Zone Earthquakes Demonstration
While working in groups to facilitate peer tutoring, students manipulate a hands-on, physical model to better comprehend several characteristics of subduction zone earthquakes. By plotting earthquake epicenters on the simulated overriding plate, students observe the difference between focus and epicenter. The model also provides opportunities for students to interact with the data to determine the relationships between distance from the trench, focus depth, and earthquake magnitude. Furthermore, the model allows students to explore the relationship between subduction angle and the locations of earthquake epicenters.

Learning Goals

Students will understand:

Context for Use

This model can be used in a variety of instructional settings including large lecture classes and small laboratory classes, and can be used in either a unit on plate tectonics or earthquakes. Student manipulation of the model requires more than one person, thus it works best when students are grouped together.

Teaching Materials

Each student model consists of the following materials:

Subduction Zone Earthquakes Templates (Acrobat (PDF) 85kB Apr29 08)

During a lecture, have the students hold the transparency level while allowing the paper to hang downwards at any angle. The paper represents the descending oceanic crust and the transparency represents the overriding plate. Students use the marker to plot the locations and magnitudes of each earthquake, and then use that information to answer instructor-led questions concerning the relationships between earthquake magnitude, position, and depth.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students will be tempted to complete this exercise with both the paper and the transparency lying flat on their desk. This geometry will yield correct answers but will not simulate either the geometry of the descending plate or the relationship between focus and epicenter.


Several different assessment techniques can be used depending on time and the needs of your class.

References and Resources

ConcepTest questions used with this model:


Geoscience:Geology:Geophysics:Seismology, Geoscience:Geology:Tectonics, Environmental Science:Natural Hazards:Earthquakes

Resource Type

Activities:Classroom Activity:Short Activity:Demonstration

Special Interest

Large Classroom, Hazards

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level, High School (9-12)

Learning Environment

Large Classes

Earth System Topics

Solid Earth:Earthquakes, Human Dimensions:Natural Hazards, Solid Earth:Plate Tectonics


Tectonics, Geophysics


Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Earthquakes, Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Environmental Science, Geophysics, Teach the Earth:Incorporating Societal Issues:Hazards, Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Plate Tectonics

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