Lesson 2: Understanding Earthquakes

Dig Deeper into How Earthquakes are Interpreted

Lesson Length: ~1 hour

Lesson Objectives:

Students will increase their knowledge of how:

  • Seismic activity works
  • Waves propagate (travel) through the earth
  • Seismologists work to determine the location and magnitude of earthquakes
  • Seismic data processing technology is used to identify and understand seismic waveforms

Classroom Prep:

  • Ensure that your Raspberry Shake is set-up and connected to the internet (instructions here)
  • Prepare to provide students access to laptops with internet access
  • Print student reading materials (optional)

This lesson plan assumes that educators have gone through and completed all setup necessary for the Raspberry Shake. Regardless of whether you have or have not completed set up, we recommend that before educators start teaching with the Shake, they visit and read through our Classroom Tips page. Then, you are ready to get your classroom shaking!

Learning Context/Anticipatory Set:

To start this lesson, tell your students that today they will step into the shoes of seismologists! They will learn the process of triangulation, and then practice by locating earthquakes. They will gain an understanding of how the physics of earthquake waves work and how they propagate.

Key Terms:

  • Body Waves: Earthquake waves that travel through the interior of the earth                                                                          
  • Surface Waves: Earthquake waves that travel over the surface of the earth     
  • P-Waves: Primary (pressure) waves, the fastest traveling earthquake waves
  • S-Waves: Secondary (shear) waves, the second fastest traveling waves 
  • Triangulation: Using data from three or more seismographs to identify earthquake epicenters. This process is done by identifying arrival times for the P and S waves at various stations
  • Frequency: How frequently waves repeat from wave peak to wave peak

Direct Instruction:

Now that we know the basics of seismology, what seismic activity is and how seismographs work, we can dive deeper into understanding seismic data.

What are waves?

To understand how seismologists interpret seismic waves, we must first understand what are the different types waves.

Waves are the transfer of energy through a medium, like air, water, or any material really!  Seismic waves transfer of energy as waves from earthquakes. All waves have certain characteristics: 

  • They all have a wavelength, amplitude, and frequency that distinguish them
  • The wavelength is the distance between consecutive peaks (tops) in a wave
  • The amplitude is how “high” the wave is from peak to troug
  • The frequency is how fast the wave is repeating from peak to peak during 1 second

The different types of seismic waves 

When an earthquake occurs, it releases waves of energy that spread out from the epicenter. There are two main types of waves: body waves and surface waves. Body waves travel through the earth’s interior, and surface waves travel along the surface of the Earth’s sphere. 

Body waves include primary waves (also called P-waves) and secondary (or S-waves).  P-waves are also called compressional waves because they push and pull material as they propagate. They are the fastest moving waves and therefore are the first waves detected by seismographs. 

The slower S-waves, also called shear waves because of the side-to-side movement they create as they pass through material, are detected later by the seismographs. S-waves have a much lower frequency than P-waves. 

Surface waves are the last to arrive because they travel over the less-direct path of the Earth’s crust. They are the most destructive type of earthquake wave because of the way they move ground.  Surface waves move similarly to ocean waves.

How do seismologists interpret seismic readings?

One of the most important actions that seismologists must do when a new earthquake is recorded is identify the epicenter, or the point on Earth’s surface where the earthquake occurred. Triangulation uses seismic data from three or more seismograms to identify the epicenter by estimating the time interval between the arrival of the P and S-waves. The distance away from a seismograph can be deduced from measuring the P-S wave time intervals and estimating the epicentral distance – this is calculated for you on the “EQ Locator” app on the Raspberry Shake website. If this is done for three or more seismograms, then it is possible to identify the approximate location of the epicenter by finding the intersection of these three distances (the red star in the image below).


Time: 20-25 Minutes — “Picking” P- and S- waves

First, demonstrate to the students how to use the EQ Locator web app. For step-by-step instructions on using the web app, watch the tutorial video.

Then have the  students get on a computer and navigate to locator.raspberryshake.org. The students have the task of using the EQ Locator web app to practice triangulating earthquake epicenters by identifying P- and S- waves. 

Students can then volunteer to share their experiences of using the EQ Locator app. Was triangulation, or “picking”, as it is commonly referred to in seismology, easy or hard? How successful were you the teacher? Let the class know!


Time: 5 minutes

Students write a short reflection (2-5 sentences) making observations about using the earthquake locator.

Volunteers share with the class one thing they found challenging, and why.