School seismology on tour... by John Stevenson

Since 2006, Paul Denton  has managed the
UK School 
Seismology Project. Working with
partners, he'
s developed a number of resources,
this project and delivering training
courses to
school science teachers .
In late October 2014, I was asked to help Paul Denton, UK School Seismology project manager, to assist him deliver some teacher training workshops in Sion, Switzerland. Paul mentioned there would be a ‘full size’ shaking table demo, lots of fondue and we’d be staying in a ski-lodge at the foot of the Veysonnaz ski lift. I’m not sure which captured my attention most, but cheese was on the menu for every meal!
Funded by the EC’s NERA programme, it brought together scientists, civil engineers, civil protection officers and teachers from around Europe and the Middle East. The workshop was kindly hosted and organised  by HES-SO Valais Wallis; a further education college that specialises in engineering at its Sion campus.
So, about the workshop, four days of lectures interspersed with practical workshops followed by a field trip to a local hydro-electric dam to look at the local geology and faulting/folding processes at work.

The workshop programme strolled through the seismology basics for the ‘first-timers’ to the NERA workshops, followed by a couple of afternoons of hands-on activities for the teachers and educators to get to grips with the equipment and software they would be using in the classroom. The lectures also covered hazard/risk, earthquake modelling, civil engineering and building codes.

Training with SeisGram2K, which is an
easy-to-use software package for visualisation
and analysis of earthquake seismograms.

This is where Paul and I came in; we demonstrated how to use the educational version of the free software SeisGram2K. Using data from a recent large earthquake, teachers were asked to place P and S wave ‘data squiggles’ from three seismic stations on the software’s time-travel graphs to work out the distance the earthquake waves had travelled.  The teachers then entered this distance data into the BGS Earthquake locator to plot the earthquake epicentre at the intersection between the three circles.

What is NERA?

*NERA is a 4-year European Community project that integrates key research infrastructures in Europe for monitoring earthquakes and assessing their hazard and risk. 

The BGS has a partner role to help integrate school seismology projects across Europe so that new national projects can be initiated and to join in. There are 28 European NERA participants, four of which operate their ‘flavour’ of school seismology or seismo@school. In total we know of 10 countries in Europe actively pursuing educational seismology programs (not all involved in NERA)

Under the table, where most of the hard work
happened, featuring
the two low-cost, simple,
seismometers; foreground 
TC1, background
'Slinky seismomter'

So what does it mean for schools?

Schools that engage and get to grips with school seismology get a truly cross-curricular activity that investigates a real world hazard, using real world data. It provokes teachers to ask students to put together real world solutions to monitor, detect, record and analyse earthquakes, using skills that can be developed beyond the understanding of seismic waves in the physics lab, but also using maths, IT and geography skills. For example:
  • make a seismometer from scrap materials
  • develop a data logging application for a Raspberry Pi computer
  • use online data to model seismic activity of volcanoes in Iceland

Schools develop a European partnership

The ‘Swiss  workshop’ also facilitated a partnership between two schools in England, with two schools Italy and France to develop low cost, reliable seismometers to be used by schools in Kenya. 

During the project, the schools will be asked to communicate with each other via Skype, share their data and visit each other to discuss project objectives. Like a ‘real’ EC project, the schools will be given individual tasks that they will need to produce to a deadline and integrate their results with the work of the other partner schools. 

Schools interested in developing similar partnerships can get further information about the 'mobility' funding that is available from the Erasmus Plus program. 

So why do we take part in school seismology projects?

Is something that we discussed as part of the workshop.  I’ll attempt to summarise the different perspectives of the European partners that attended the ‘Swiss workshop’ in  part two of this blog topic.


Paul Denton (left) UK School Seismology project manager and John Stevenson (right) BGS Public Engagement Lead, during the field trip to the Tseuzier Dam, Sion, Switzerland.
NERA Network of European Research Infrastructures for Earthquake Risk Assessment and Mitigation