Jan. 20, 2004 • Volume 13 Number 9

Garfield School science teacher Joseph Bergin and three of his students, (L-R) Jennifer Mejia, Melissa Dang and Soraida Garcia, look at a seismograph reading of the earthquake that caused the disastrous tsunami in South Asia. The device was installed in the school through a partnership with Boston College. (Photo by Suzanne Camarata)

Science in a New Light

BC school project boosts Boston kids' understanding of Asian tsunami disaster

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

How can you tell if the seismograph in Mr. Bergin's classroom is working? Simple: Jump up and down.

More than a half-dozen fourth- and fifth-graders in Joseph Bergin's science class at the Garfield School in Brighton did just that the other day, raising a desk-rattling stomp that readily registered with the instrument placed in the school room under a science-education partnership with Boston College's Weston Observatory.

The resulting seismogram showed a blip.

By comparison, the readout from the 9.0-magnitude Sumatra quake more than 8,000 miles away Dec. 26 was a riot of jagged spikes. The temblor that launched devastating tsunamis across the Indian Ocean was so powerful it literally shook the foundations of the school on the other side of the world in Brighton.

Not only has the seismograph installed under the Boston College Educational Seismology Project sparked pupils' interest in science, it has brought world events into the classroom.

Youngsters returning to class on Jan. 4 after the Christmas break found the dramatic seismogram that had been captured as a record of the Sumatra quake. "It took your breath away," said Bergin. "Everyone who saw it, went, 'Ohhhh!'

"The kids really had an understanding [of the earthquake] and were explaining the dynamics to their parents," he said. "The parents from around here don't know about earthquakes. Their kids do."

Fifth-grader Jennifer Mejia, 11, said: "I'd never seen an earthquake that big. Everyone was really excited."

Added fifth-grader Melissa Dang, 10: "It was pretty sad, too."

Similar instruments have been installed by the BC Educational Seismology Project in the McDevitt Middle School in Waltham, in the Weston middle and high schools, and just this past week, at Framingham High. In the wake of the recent Indian Ocean disaster, more than a half-dozen other schools are speeding plans to join the BC network.

Quake-tracking has sparked great interest among pupils at the Garfield School, a mini-United Nations that serves immigrant families who speak 40 different languages, and where Bergin, a former cabbie-turned-schoolteacher from Cambridge, brings a hands-on enthusiasm to his classes in science.

Elementary-schoolers from the Garfield now regularly e-mail the Weston Observatory about earthquakes they have recorded from around the world. Some pupils even have taken to monitoring college-level geology courses on the Internet.

"I just want to be a scientist someday," said Melissa, whose mother is from Hong Kong and father, from Vietnam.

The BC Educational Seismology Project grew out of a partnership between Geology and Geophysics chairman Prof. Alan Kafka, Weston Observatory Director Prof. John Ebel, and Asst. Prof. Michael Barnett (LSOE). A National Science Foundation grant a little over a year ago provided $160,000 for placing seismographs in selected schools.

A seismograph of the Dec. 26 Sumatra earthquake recorded at the Garfield School by the Boston College Educational Seismology Project.

Simultaneously, the Carnegie Corp. awarded Boston College a $5 million grant to participate in the Teachers for a New Era initiative, which aims to bolster K-12 education by supporting training programs that offer original research, extensive field experience, and a rigorous arts and sciences education for future teachers.

Under the Carnegie initiative, the Lynch School and the College of Arts and Sciences are helping Garfield teachers develop innovative curricula in math, science and technology.

Barnett this semester is teaching a Lynch School course one night a week from Bergin's science classroom at the Garfield. Lynch School students will be working in an after-school program at the Brighton school this semester. Barnett and Kafka this year also have teamed on a course in earth science for prospective elementary school teachers.

Barnett's own background is in astrophysics. He took his bachelor's and master's degree in physics at Indiana University, focusing on cosmology, the Big Bang and the age of the universe, before deciding to take his doctorate in science education. "You can't beat teaching kids," he said.

The Lynch School professor brought seismologist together with science teacher. "I would not have gone to Garfield Elementary, because it wasn't on my radar," Kafka recalled. "Mike Barnett said, 'Hop in my car. We're going to meet a great teacher.'"

So it was that Kafka one morning last week was taking an e-mail on his Weston Observatory computer from a Garfield fifth-grader querying the location of an earthquake in Iran the night before. "The thing is to get the pupils to think of themselves as seismologists," said Kafka.

Bergin said: "Alan writes them back, and tells them they're part of something bigger. This is not really fifth-grade science, but I tell them they're ready for it.

"They're excited about it. If they're excited, the sky's the limit."

Kafka credited Garfield Principal Victoria Megias-Batista and science instructor Bergin for the success of earthquake education at the urban school. "Part of the reason it works so well is a great principal and a great teacher," he said.

"The kids at the Garfield School are learning plate tectonics, earthquakes, seismology. We'd like to have that generation of students grow up and be interested in going to Boston College to study geology and geophysics. We'd also like a generally-educated public.

"What happens if we build the best tsunami-warning system in the world and 20 years from now, don't have any young people who know how to work it?"

Ebel said, "Education is important for a couple of reasons. When you get warnings, you have to know how to react. And people from New England go to places where there are tsunamis. The work of Alan Kafka and Mike Barnett in earthquake education is tremendously important."

Gathered in Bergin's classroom one morning last week were pupils whose parents had arrived in Brighton from Honduras and El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, Ireland and Eritrea. Their teacher, himself the grandson of Irish immigrants, said the school's Brighton neighborhood reminds him of the Cambridgeport in which he was raised.

A former cabdriver who went to school nights for his teaching degree, Bergin has been known to conduct class with a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck, and often piles his charges aboard the T for field trips to local museums or the Charles River. A class letter-writing campaign has his pupils corresponding in Spanish as well as English with US Marines serving in Iraq.

His seismograph-savvy pupils were taken by the news report of the vacationing British girl who'd warned people after recognizing what she'd learned in science class to be an oncoming tsunami. "The kids really froze with that story," Bergin said. "A kid their age had saved all those lives."

"It was a miracle," said fourth-grader Adriana Hernandez, 9. In the event of a similar emergency, fourth-grader Heaven Reda, 9, said, "I would try to be able to tell people about an earthquake, and that maybe a tsunami was coming."

More information about the BC Educational Seismology Project is available at

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