PLAN: THE SCIENCE OF TSUNAMIS: SEEKING UNDERSTANDING IN THE WAKE OF TRAGEDY
Background, Activities and Critical Analysis
Time: Approximately one 45 minute class session
Lesson Objectives: Students will:
once called tidal waves, are enormous waves caused by seismic activity, such as
earthquakes and volcano eruptions. Prior to December, 2004, the largest recorded
tsunamis in the Indian Ocean occurred on August 27th, 1883, caused by the eruption
of the volcano Krakatoa. In general, however, tsunamis are uncommon in this region
of the world, which may have been one reason why no one could have been prepared
for what would happen.
December 26th, the earthquake that shook the Indian Ocean sent a series of destructive
tsunamis toward the coasts of 11 countries with borders on the ocean. This time,
the devastation was much greater than that of the Krakatoa tsunamis. Over 150,000
people died in the tragedy, and survivors face the daunting task of seeking out
missing loved ones and literally putting their lives back together. Even those
not directly involved have been moved by this tragedy, and aid groups from around
the world are collecting millions of dollars in relief funds.
this lesson, students will gain understanding about the nature and causes of tsunamis,
confronting the tragedy in a productive and practical way. After learning the
fundamentals of the physics of waves propagated through water, students will seek
to understand the nature and causes of tsunamis, and finish by applying their
knowledge to better understanding the recent tragedy.
more in-depth treatment of this topic, teachers are encouraged to explore the
NewsHour pages devoted to this topic. South Asia Disaster: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia/tsunami/index.html
Large tank filled several inches with water
2. Two rocks, balls, or other objects
that can be dropped into the water. The second object should be several times
heavier than the first. The two objects should be labeled "wind" and
3. Paper and pens/pencils for students
Copies of the NewsHour Extra article "Scientists
Explain Origin of South Asia's Deadly Disaster"
5. Computers with
6. Poster board
7. Glue, markers, etc. for creating posters
to National Standards
In order to give students a background into how waves function in water, conduct
the following demonstration:
show the students the two labeled objects. Explain that a wave is energy traveling
through water, and that the most common source of energy that causes waves is
explain that earthquakes can also send waves of energy through the water, which
is precisely what happened on December 26th in the Indian Ocean.
a student volunteer come to the front of the class and conduct three tests, dropping
the three labeled objects into the tank, one by one, and watching the waves that
result. (If necessary, have other students stand around the tank and watch
from above in order to better see the propagation of the waves.)
during each test, have another student mark (with tape or marker) the height of
the highest wave from each object on the side of the tank. For each test, have
students write down their observations, using the following questions as a guideline:
possible, place small objects on the side of the tank in the wake of the waves
and have students observe what happens to these objects when the waves hit them.
big were the waves caused by this object (use the height markers to determine
an accurate answer)?
quickly did the waves seem to travel (choose one to follow from the center to
the outside of the tank: how long does it take?)?
is the relationship between the size and speed of the waves?
is the relationship of the size of the object and the size and speed of the waves?
that you lived on the side of this tank and never expected the water to go above
the highest wind wave. How would you feel upon seeing a wave caused by an earthquake
approaching your shore?
happened to the objects on the side of the tank when the waves hit them? Imagine
these objects represent homes and villages?
As a class, read the first two sections of the NewsHour Extra article "Scientists
Explain Origin of South Asia's Deadly Disaster", and discuss the accompanying
comprehension questions reproduced below:
Divide the class into four groups. Each group should create a poster on one of
the following topics:
The Physics of Waves- the poster should briefly describe the basic facts
of wave motion. The Physics Classroom (http://www.physicsclassroom.com/Class/sound/soundtoc.html)
has manageable lessons on wave physics that can be used for reference. Some information
the two fundamental equations for a wave (speed = wavelength/ period and speed
= wavelength * frequency)
ii. the effects of wave interference
b. How Tsunamis Work- a poster demonstrating how an earthquake cause a tsunami, and how a tsunami progresses toward a coast. Excellent information and graphics are available at the U.S. Geological Survey site: http://walrus.wr.usgs.gov/tsunami/
Tsunami Aftermath- this poster should focus on the devastation caused by
the recent tsunami. The poster can include testimonials by survivors and pictures
of the effects of the tsunamis.
d. What We Can Do- a poster with information
on organizations leading the relief efforts and how individuals can help.
can finish their posters for homework, if necessary. Posters should be displayed
on classroom walls, or, if possible, in a school hallway display case.
Students can create a model of a tsunami. The following link provides a feasible
As a class, conduct a fundraiser for tsunami victims. Also use this opportunity
to heighten people's awareness about tsunamis and their effects (e.g. if you have
a bake sale, have a tsunami demonstration set up at the table; if you send out
donation cards, include a pamphlet about tsunamis in the envelope).
Correlation to National Standards:
7. Knows the physical processes that shape patterns on Earth's
15. Understands how physical systems affect human systems
2. Understands Earth's composition and structure
9. Understands the sources
and properties of energy
10. Understands forces and motion
About the Author: Rachel Klein graduated from the University of Chicago's
MAT program in 1999. She has taught English in private and public schools, and
has written curriculum for the New York Times Learning Network, as well as their
Newspaper in Education program. She conducts teaching and parenting workshops
throughout the Midwest.
find out more about opportunities to contribute to this site, contact Leah Clapman