Saving the World from Earthquakes and Volcanoes

On Tuesday, February 2nd, breaking news reached students here at Excel – the world was in danger of being destroyed by a rash of earthquakes all across the globe, and top scientists and politicians were calling on our students to save the world. Using the power of computational thinking to decompose the potentially apocalyptic problem and analyzing real-world data to find patterns, it was up to our sixth graders to understand what was happening and where we might be safe.

This lesson was heavily inspired by CIESE’s Musical Plates project, a wonderful (albeit slightly outdated) lesson plan on using real-time data freely available online to understand the relationships between earthquakes, volcanoes and tectonic plate boundaries. As our lesson began, students were asked to answer the following questions:

  1. Where are earthquakes happening? Are they clustered or do they seem random?
  2. Can we predict where earthquakes will happen next?
  3. What is causing these earthquakes to occur?

Students developed hypotheses for each of the above and then teamed up to brainstorm strategies to help validate their predictions. All three classes independently came up with the approach of using data, and many students intuited that some earthquakes were likely happening near Japan and in Alaska. Breaking out our Chromebooks, teams used earthquake data as fresh as a few hours old, available here. After a quick lesson on plotting using latitude and longitude (a nice tie-in to their recent work in math classes with the coordinate plane), they raced to see how many earthquakes they could plot on a blank world map.

Student teams race to plot earthquakes onto a world map using GPS coordinates.
Student teams race to plot earthquakes onto a world map using GPS coordinates.

Thanks to the magic that is laser-printer-friendly vellum tracing paper, teams were then given a transparent overlay printed with the tectonic plate boundaries, lining up perfectly with their data-rich world maps and quickly demonstrating the close relationship of these two physical phenomena. One student couldn’t contain her excitement – “there’s a pattern!” she proclaimed almost immediately.

Just when students thought they had identified the safest locations on the planet, I hit them with a whole new beast – not only were earthquakes terrorizing the human race, but suddenly the world’s largest volcanoes were acting up, too! They knew exactly what to do – using location data for the planet’s major volcanoes, students added these new terrors to their map… and were audibly relieved to see that volcanoes, like earthquakes, mostly fall along the plate boundary lines.

Armed with solid theories and the data to back them up, it was time for students to make their recommendations to the head honcho himself, President Obama.

A completely undoctored image of Preisdent Obama reading our letters.
A completely undoctored image of Preisdent Obama reading our letters.

Reading through students’ letters, it was clear they had picked up a lot from this two-day lesson. No one wanted to live in Fiji (sorry, Fiji!), many students were really excited for the President to write them back, and most importantly, all were able to take a daunting and intentionally ambiguous assignment and break it down into steps, using live data and pattern recognition to develop theories about the real world and then defend them.

If you’d like to leverage the materials used in this lesson, you can find them at


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