Plate Tectonic - Earthquakes (1)

  • Discovering that earthquakes create energy.
  • Simulating how an earthquake shakes an area.
  • earthquake
  • energy
  • moderate
  • strong
  • weak
  • primary shaker tables
  • village toys (i.e. small houses, people, cars)

Students stimulate an earthquake using a shaker table.

Caracas, Venezuela


The crust of the Earth moves when force is applied to it. Earthquakes are caused by stresses from plate movement, and to a much lesser degree, from the movement of magma in the crust and upper mantle of the Earth.

Students should understand that stress within the crust of the Earth can "relieve" itself by giving off energy (earthquakes). This energy is released in the form of seismic waves. These waves make the whole Earth ring like a bell as the travel throughout the Earth. The movement of these waves within the Earth’s crust can cause minor to major damage to structures on the surface of the Earth, especially close to the origin of the earthquake. The damage depends on the intensity of the original stress and its dissipation as it travels through the crust.

Earthquakes are caused by the sudden movement and fracturing of rock masses along preexisting faults. A fault is a broken surface within the Earth’s crust. The point on the fault at which the displacement begins is called the focus of the earthquake. The point on the surface of the Earth directly above the focus is the epicenter. Your students need to understand that an earthquake happens in rocks that have been stressed. This stress is stored until the strength of the rock is exceeded. The actual break (the earthquake) then releases the energy in the form of seismic waves.

The more energy that is released the more severe the shaking will be. Seismologists (scientists that study earthquakes) use different ways of measuring the intensity of an earthquake. One method is the Richter Scale, which measures the size of the waves released by the earthquake. The larger the number, the more energy is released.

When an earthquake occurs, the shaking indicates that an earthquake has released energy. This activity will have the students experience different simulations of earthquake intensities and how it affects homes.


  1. Construct primary shaker tables before the activity. Make enough tables for the students to work in groups of 2 or 3. Here are directions:


The primary shaker table is an inexpensive, but useful tool for demonstrating weak, moderate, and strong earthquake damage to children. It is called a primary shaker table because it can move in only one direction. It is thus not a fully correct analog to the many directions of motion in a real earthquake. However, the primary shaker table is an excellent visual tool to help small children can understand that earthquakes vary in both intensity and damage


8 long stemmed brads or nails
4 strong, thick rubber bands
cardboard box with lid
plastic container lid


  1. Cut a section from the cardboard box lid so that it will fit inside of the cardboard box as shown in the picture below.


  1. Take 4 brads and insert them from the inside of the cardboard box so that the stems fall outside of the box. Insert the remaining four brads into the cut lid of the box. Make sure that the brads are not directly on the edge as this will cause the lid to tear when pulled.

  1. Fasten the rubber bands to the brads inside of the cardboard box. Fasten the other ends of the rubber bands to the brads on the cut lid. Leave the lid inside of the box.

  1. Place several marbles in a container top. Put the marbles in their container under the cardboard lid in the box, to allow it to move freely when up or down.
  2. Make a small hole in one end of the box. Attach a piece of string to one end of the lid and insert the opposite end of the string through the hole in the box. This move the lid. Don't forget to tie a knot at the end of the string where comes out of the box, this will prevent it from going back inside. Your "primary shaker table" is complete.
  1. Demonstrate how the shaker table works to the class. When it is "jolted" it simulates the movement of the Earth's surface (an earthquake). The earthquake creates energy that moves along the surface of the shaker table as waves. Control the "intensity" by how fast you shake the board. Demonstrate to students that a strong earthquake occurs when you shake fast; a weak earthquake occurs when you shake it less violently; a moderate earthquake occurs when you shake it somewhere in between.
  2. Divide the students into groups. Instruct each group to make a little village on the shaker table. Illustrate to them how to shake the village at the different intensities. Discuss what happens after a strong, moderate, and weak earthquake. Emphasize the difference between the shaking events by comparing how and when the toys fell. During your discussion, relate your discussion back to the Pre Lab. Explain that the movement of the boards is like the person jumping into the tub, creating energy.
    As the energy waves hit the village with enough force it will knock down the village. To make it more dramatic for the students, have the groups shake their tables together and say "strong, earthquake, a lot of energy," or "moderate earthquake, not too much energy," or "weak earthquake, little energy."
  3. After each shaking, review what happens to the village. At the end of the lesson, go over each of the earthquakes and compare the effects of the different intensities. The conclusion should be that the higher the intensity, the more the damage to the homes. A small earthquake, which most earthquakes are, causes very little damage. You may want to tell children that earthquakes only cause damage where homes and buildings are not constructed to withstand shaking.

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