Seismic Shift

Weston Observatory is shaking up science education at four New England schools

By Michael Seele
Chronicle Editor

Students at four New England middle and high schools are undergoing a seismic shift in how they study science. They have joined researchers at Boston College's Weston Observatory in tracking earthquakes around the globe in a novel program that combines seismic research with learning.

Last month, the schools embarked on their first full academic year with seismometers purchased and installed through a National Science Foundation grant obtained by Boston College faculty. Through an ongoing series of teacher-training workshops at Weston, teachers have learned how to operate the seismic stations and relay data via computers to Weston. They are now in the process of formulating curriculums that will involve their students more deeply in learning about seismicity.

The project is part of a national effort launched by Princeton University in 1996. Boston College is directing the project in the New England region. The New England schools participating are the McCall Middle School in Winchester, Mass., Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, Mass., the Bromfield School in Harvard, Mass., and New Canaan High School in New Canaan, Conn.

Assoc. Prof. Alan Kafka (left) and Prof. John Ebel are leading the project in New England. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

The students gain a far more detailed knowledge of earthquakes through the project, and the Weston Observatory gains four new seismic stations in its 12-station regional network, according to the project's principals.

By using the seismometers in the classroom, students are gaining knowledge about earthquakes and the planet's internal structure, said Prof. John Ebel (Geology), director of the Weston Observatory, and Assoc. Prof. Alan Kafka (Geology). Due to differences in geology, earthquake waves should reach the New Canaan seismometer about one-third of a second sooner, on average, than they will reach the Massachusetts stations, Kafka said. Students will have the opportunity to prove and explain that phenomenon.

"It's simple, yet complicated," Kafka said. "They will see how science works."

In the process, Ebel added, they will gain insight into the Earth's internal makeup.

"If you want to X-ray the interior of the Earth you use seismic waves," Ebel said. "They'll map the Earth looking down. They will become part of the data stream."

"Never did I think I could have a seismometer in my classroom," said Neil Gillis, a teacher at the McCall School who has taught earth science for 30 years. His lesson on earthquakes had consisted of 23 pages in the textbook, he said, mostly historical notes on notorious quakes like the 1906 San Francisco temblor. Being part of a working seismic network, he said, is "how we can get students involved and get them more knowledgeable about the study of seismology."

Though middle school students won't be wading into the research aspect of the project, the seismometer will provide a valuable introduction to the field, he said. "Any data that occurs, I will display it on the bulletin board," said Gillis, who recorded a magnitude 7.1 quake that occurred off the coast of Ecuador on Aug. 4. "It's real; it's something they can look at that's not in a textbook. It brings things alive to kids in the eighth grade."

Anita Honkonen recruited two of her ninth-graders at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School to participate more actively in the research aspect of the project when she obtained a seismometer during the last academic year. This year, the students will operate the station as part of an independent study project while Honkonen is on sabbatical at BC's School of Education working on a graduate degree.

While the students maintain the machine and stay in communication with Weston, Honkonen plans to devote time to figuring out how to incorporate the project into her science curriculum.

"Because of state guidelines, I can't spend a whole year doing earthquakes," she said. "It's going to take some creative thinking to do more than just two weeks on earthquakes."

Honkonen, Gillis and the other teachers are in the process of hashing out just such a plan with Kafka, Ebel and other faculty at Boston College during their monthly meetings.

"I would like to see Weston Observatory become a resource for these students and teachers," said Kafka. "I'd like to make sure that they are intimately involved in what we do."

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