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Whose Fault Is It Anyway?

Eric Muller

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

Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review 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 resource received an Accept or Accept with minor revisions rating from a Panel Peer Review process

These materials were reviewed using face-to-face NSF-style review panel of geoscience and geoscience education experts to review groups of resources addressing a single theme. Panelists wrote reviews that addressed the criteria:

  1. scientific accuracy and currency
  2. usability and
  3. pedagogical effectiveness
Reviewers rated the resources:
  1. Accept
  2. Accept with minor revisions
  3. Accept with major revisions, or
  4. Reject.
They also singled out those resources they considered particularly exemplary, which are given a gold star rating.

Following the panel meetings, the conveners wrote summaries of the panel discussion for each resource; these were transmitted to the creator, along with anonymous versions of the reviews. Relatively few resources were accepted as is. In most cases, the majority of the resources were either designated as 1) Reject or 2) Accept with major revisions. Resources were most often rejected for their lack of completeness to be used in a classroom or they contained scientific inaccuracies.

This page first made public: Oct 28, 2005

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


This game has students simulate the propagation of S and P waves after an earthquake and to use the lag between these to determine where in the simulation the earthquake occurred. Students stand in lines holding hands with those at the ends working as seismometers to record how long it takes P- and S-waves to reach them. The students between them propagate the waves as handshakes, allowing an extra two-second lag for S-waves. The student who originated the waves, representing the earthquake is known only to him- or herself and the instructor until the others can figure out who it is based on the lag between the S- and P-waves, which increases with the number of people between the earthquake and the seismometer.

Learning Goals

This exercise give students:

Context for Use

This exercise could be used as a half-hour break in a lecture. It's well suited for an introductory geology or environmental hazards class.

Teaching Materials

Have the students get up from their chairs and stand in lines of 10-25 people

Have all of the students join hands and look up and straight ahead, not at their hands or at anyone next to them

Practice wave propagation before beginning the game.

Now, try again with a mystery hypocenter.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The author suggests an alternative exercise for a really large class. Form a long line with the whole class, with the hypocenter (known) at one end and a seismometer every five people (use a regular watch kept in view as the seismometers won't have a hand free). Each seismometer notes and puts on the board (or adds to a projected spreadsheet) how long it took to receive the S and P waves and how many people were between him/her and the hypocenter. Have each student graph propagation times for S and P waves by the number of people.


None formal, but if you want to do some scoring, give students or student groups who can figure out who the earthquake is points, perhaps extra points for getting the right answer first second, third, etc. Run the game a few times so points can add up, especially if not all groups get the right answer the first time.

References and Resources

This exercise is based on Muller, 1993 .


Environmental Science:Natural Hazards:Earthquakes, Geoscience:Geology

Resource Type

Activities:Classroom Activity:Short Activity:Demonstration, Activities:Classroom Activity:Short Activity

Special Interest

Large Classroom, Hazards

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level

Learning Environment

Large Classes

Ready for Use

Ready to Use:Meets Peer Review Standard:Anonymous Peer Review, Ready to Use

Earth System Topics

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


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

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