A Unique Opportunity for Scientific Inquiry in a K-12 School Environment

The BC-ESP is a collaborative effort in partnership with the Incorprated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) to promote classroom use of educational seismographs in K-12 schools. An intriguing challenge facing these efforts to use seismographs in schools as a window into the world of science research is the disconnect between the open, inquiry-based culture underlying scientific research and the rigid curriculum schedules and “teaching to the standardized tests” environment that is all too common in K-12 schools.

Bridging this divide between the cultures of science research and K-12 schools is not easy (e.g., Kafka et al., 2006), but a refreshing exception to this predicament is the Sea Lab Marine Science Education Center in New Bedford, MA, where the BC-ESP operates educational seismographs (Figure 1) and an educational seismology program. Although Sea Lab is part of the New Bedford public school system, the learning environment there is quite different from what we typically find in public schools. The culture of Sea Lab is refreshingly conducive to scientific inquiry.

Sea Lab is a remarkable endeavor, creatively capitalizing on New Bedford’s historical roots as a major seaport. Long after the heyday of New Bedford’s whaling and fishing industry in the 19th century, Sea Lab began in 1968 as a weekly marine science class for fifth-grade students. From this modest beginning, the founders of Sea Lab, Arthur Dutra and Simone Bourgeois, realized their dream of a world-class summer science program, plus an academic year program for all of New Bedford’s grade five students to experience the marine science course of study at the new modern Sea Lab facility (completed in 2005). The recent addition of seismology to the Sea Lab experience was made possible through its partnership with Weston Observatory. Although most Sea Lab students are from poor, minority families living in an economically depressed urban environment, the quality of Sea Lab’s facilities is as good as any I have seen in the wealthiest school districts. This is in large part testimony to the vision and tenacity of the two founders, who continue to manage the school to this very day.

Sea Lab is an inspiring environment for teaching scientific inquiry in the context of students recording earthquakes in their school. Our BC-ESP curriculum at Sea Lab begins with an inquiry-based exercise in which the students are asked to build their own seismograph based on their own ideas regarding what it might take to create an instrument that records ground motion. The students are given a variety of materials (such as, tape, straws, paper towel rolls, rubber bands, springs, marbles, weights, etc.) and are given minimal instructions other than to build an instrument that would detect and record motion (Figure 2). They are encouraged to think through this problem from first principles to determine what attributes a seismograph should have in order to detect motion.

Our curriculum then moves on to a variety of other exercises in which students learn about seismology via directly working with seismograms recorded at Sea Lab and other schools operating educational seismographs. When the students see the seismograph screen (prominently displayed in the lobby) on the day of a very well-recorded earthquake, it is hard to miss that an earthquake was recorded (Figure 1). However, most of the time the screen shows much less dramatic vibrations, such as students walking near the seismograph, people slamming doors, large trucks passing by the building, and natural non-earthquake vibrations such as wind. By observing the seismograph screen on a regular basis, the students learn to recognize when an earthquake has been recorded, and to recognize the different types of earthquake waves that propagate through the Earth. To help them with this inquiry, we developed an exercise in which they are shown examples of earthquakes already recorded on educational seismographs, ranging from very dramatic (and hard to miss) recordings of earthquakes to very subtle ones that are hard to identify. With these examples as a guide, they practice identifying different types of signals and learn how to recognize the “fingerprints” of an earthquake and to distinguish earthquake signals from other types of recorded vibrations. This exercise is later followed by more formal instruction on seismic wave propagation and the various types of waves that are generated by earthquakes.

Building upon the “science of the sea” base of the Sea Lab curriculum, the students also investigate microseisms recorded on their seismograph (Figure 1), and thus learn about how seismologists record vibrations generated by ocean waves breaking against the shoreline. This enables us to connect our seismology curriculum with the marine science roots of Sea Lab.

Sea Lab teachers bring their students to the seismograph on a daily basis, thus integrating seismology and an appreciation of our active planet into the daily lives of first graders through middle school students. At Sea Lab, observation and inquiry – natural tendencies in children – are nurtured rather than squelched.

For more information about the BC-ESP, and the online BC-ESP curriculum, go to –

For more information about Sea Lab, go to –

For more information about IRIS, go to –


Kafka, A.L., J.E. Ebel, M. Barnett, A. Macherides Moulis, L. Campbell, and S.E. Gordon (2006). Classroom seismographs and the challenge of encouraging a culture of scientific inquiry in K–12 schools, Seismological Research Letters, 77(6), 74-86 (www2.bc.edu/~kafka/SeismoEd_SRL/SRL776_EduQuakes.htm)

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