Stressed Out!
Lesson Overview

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TIME ALLOTMENT: Three or four 45-minute class periods


The rupture that occurs when bending stresses within earth’s rock exceeds the strength of the rock itself is known as an earthquake. Earthquakes cause seismic waves, which move both through earth and along its surface. Earthquakes can occur anywhere near earth’s surface, but most often happen at the boundaries between lithospheric plates. The seismic waves generated by earthquakes represent a transfer of energy, and can be recorded by devices known as seismometers. The seismic waves earthquakes generate are also used to investigate the structure of earth’s interior.

Earthquakes are significant natural hazards capable of destroying life and property on a massive scale. Scientists are anxious to perfect the art of predicting earthquakes to save lives and limit economic loss, but have achieved very limited success. The additional danger posed to coastal development by earthquake-generated tsunamis lends urgency to this task.

In this lesson, students will identify methods for detecting and locating earthquakes, utilizing excerpts from the NATURE episode “Can Animals Predict Disaster?” The class will simulate the action of P and S waves, and analyze seismic data and use seismic data to determine the epicenter of an earthquake.

Student understanding will be assessed throughout the lesson using a self-check quiz, a knowledge tracking chart, responses to in-class discussions, and successful completion of virtual lab activities. Students should have basic knowledge of waves, wave propagation, and potential energy prior to completing this lesson.

This lesson can be used immediately before students complete the New York State Regents Earth Science Lab activity “Locating an Epicenter.” It can also be used prior to the NATURE: Window into Science lesson “Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot!”



  • Express an understanding of the dynamics of earthquakes;
  • Explain the basic principles of plate tectonics, as they relate to earthquakes;
  • Explain how the energy released in an earthquake travels as P waves, S waves, and surface waves;
  • Describe how earthquakes can be detected and located;
  • Compare the differing behaviors of P waves and S waves;
  • Recognize P waves and S waves on a seismograph;
  • Utilize data and graph skills to determine the epicenter of an earthquake.


National Science Education Standards:

CONTENT STANDARD D: Earth and Space Science

All students should develop an understanding of:

Energy in the Earth System

  • Earth systems have internal and external sources of energy, both of which create heat. The sun is the major external source of energy. Two primary sources of internal energy are the decay of radioactive isotopes and the gravitational energy from the earth’s original formation.
  • The outward transfer of earth’s internal heat drives convection circulation in the mantle that propels the plates comprising earth’s surface across the face of the globe.
  • Heating of earth’s surface and atmosphere by the sun drives convection within the atmosphere and oceans, producing winds and ocean currents.

New York State Regents Core Curriculum Alignments

Physical Setting: Earth Science Core Curriculum

STANDARD 1: Analysis, Inquiry, and Design: Scientific Inquiry:

Key Idea 1: The central purpose of scientific inquiry is to develop explanations of natural phenomena in a continuing creative process.

STANDARD 2: Students will access, generate, process, and transfer information, using appropriate technologies.

Key Idea 1: Information technology is used to retrieve, process, and communicate information as a tool to enhance learning.

STANDARD 4: Students will understand and apply scientific concepts, principles and theories pertaining to the physical setting and living environment and recognize the historical development of ideas in science.

Key Idea 2: Many of the phenomena that we observe on Earth involve interactions among components of air, water, and land. Earth may be considered a huge machine driven by two engines, one internal and one external. These heat engines convert heat energy into mechanical energy.


Use the concept of density and heat energy to explain observations of weather patterns, seasonal changes, and the movement of Earth’s plates.

2.1l. The lithosphere consists of separate plates that ride on the more fluid asthenosphere and move slowly in relationship to one another creating convergent, divergent and transform plate boundaries. These motions indicate that Earth is a dynamic geologic system. These plate boundaries are the sites of most earthquakes, volcanoes and young mountain ranges.

2.1k The outward transfer of Earth’s internal heat drives convective circulation in the mantle that moves the lithosphere plates comprising Earth’s surface.

2.1j Properties of Earth’s internal structure (crust, mantle, inner core, and outer core) can be inferred from the analysis of the behavior of seismic waves (including velocity and refraction).

Analysis of seismic waves allows the determination of the location of earthquake epicenters, and the measurement of earthquake magnitude, this analysis leads to the inference that Earth’s interior is composed of layers that differ in composition and states of matter.

STANDARD 7: Students will apply the knowledge and thinking skills of mathematics, science, and technology to address real life problems and make informed decisions.



NATURE: Can Animals Predict Disaster?, selected segments:

Clip 1: “Destructive Forces”

Describes instances of animals mysteriously surviving natural disasters.

Clip 2: “Waves of Destruction”

Anatomy of a tsunami.

Access the streaming and downloadable video segments for this lesson on the Video Segments Page.

Web sites:

Dynamic Earth

This interactive site allows users to delve into the earth’s interior, learn about its tectonic plates and their movements, and discover how mountains, volcanoes, and earthquakes are formed.


This site features an image of a seismograph.

Virtual Earthquake

This activity illustrates how seismic waves are used to locate an earthquake’s epicenter.


For the class:

  • One computer with Internet access for class demonstration
  • One LCD projector for the computer
  • A hard-boiled egg with a cracked shell
  • Water
  • Pen
  • Plastic ruler
  • Stick or twig
  • Glob of play-dough or clay
  • Rubber band
  • Safety goggles (for teacher)
  • A slinky
  • Stressed Out! Self Check Quiz Answer Key (PDF) (RTF)
  • Stressed Out! Vocabulary Organizer Answer Key (PDF) (RTF)

For each group of 3-4 students:

  • Computer with Internet access
  • A tuning fork
  • A 1000ml beaker

For each student:

  • Knowledge Tracking chart (PDF) (RTF)
  • Stressed Out! Self Check quiz (PDF) (RTF)
  • Stressed Out! Vocabulary Organizer (PDF) (RTF)


Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Preview all of the video clips and Web sites used in the lesson.

Download the video clips used in the lesson to your classroom computer, or prepare to watch them using your classroom’s Internet connection.

Bookmark the Web sites used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tool such as or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to organize all the links in a central location.

Gather the necessary materials listed above in advance of teaching the lesson. Download and print each of the student organizers listed above, and make copies for each student in your classroom.

Read through the lesson prior to class, and try out each of the activities. When practicing the tuning fork activity, try varying the depth at which the tuning fork is placed in the water to get the best waves; you may get best results by keeping the fork closer to the surface of the water.

Next: proceed to Activities

  • skittles

    how do earthquakes form? I want to see in pictuures.

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