Science teachers join Penn State-Woods Hole earthquake team

University Park, Pa. -- As the massive earthquakes in Haiti and Chile show, the science of seismology has not advanced far enough for scientists to accurately predict earthquakes, but a new Penn State and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution project aims to add to the scientific understanding of earthquakes by involving secondary school science teachers in a national research effort to study earthquake swarms.

“Research shows that teachers who participate in science have students who do much better in science,” said Eliza Richardson, assistant professor of geosciences at Penn State and lead faculty member for Penn State’s online Master of Education in Earth Sciences program. “If we can turn teachers into inspiring science teachers, this program will have done its job,” added Richardson, who also holds a joint appointment at the Dutton e-Education Institute.

The National Science Foundation is funding the three-year project on “Collaborative Research: Understanding the Connections between Strain Transients and Earthquake Swarms.” A partnership between Penn State and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the project begins this summer.

"It’s always great to get science teachers to have a better appreciation for current knowledge and how science works, so they can convey that back to the classroom," said Jeff McGuire, WHOI associate scientist in geology and geophysics.

More importantly, this project has “the potential to produce important knowledge,” Richardson said.

Participating teachers will use data available online through the EarthScope project ( and the Advanced National Seismic System global earthquake catalog ( to examine different aspects of earthquake swarms.

“In the last five years, our instruments on fault systems have gotten better, and we can now see things we couldn’t before,” Richardson said. “As a result, we’re seeing strain transients where two sides of a fault move, but no earthquake results. Transients can be hard to locate. We also see earthquake swarms, which are clusters of very tiny earthquakes. We don’t know much about the physics behind swarms or how clusters and swarms are related. The teachers will help us find answers.”

McGuire’s research team will focus on the triggering of earthquakes.

“There is still an open debate about the physical laws that describe the process by which the changes in the stress field after a big earthquake trigger aftershocks. We want to look at times in the data when there are clusters of earthquakes without a big earthquake triggering them to help understand this process.”

Each year, three science teachers will be invited to participate in the project as part of their capstone master’s degree course. Among their activities, they will develop teaching plans for sharing their results, including by creating learning objects that will be made publicly available through Penn State’s Open Educational Resources initiative. Teachers also may have opportunities to publish and present their research at national conferences, and they will receive a $10,000 stipend.

The 30-credit Master of Education in Earth Sciences program is offered online by the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ Department of Geosciences and Dutton e-Education Institute through Penn State World Campus. Currently, 83 teachers who teach science in grades seven through 12 are enrolled. For more information, visit online.

Penn State World Campus specializes in adult online education, delivering more than 60 of Penn State’s most highly regarded graduate, undergraduate and professional education programs through convenient online formats. Founded in 1998, Penn State World Campus is the University’s 25th campus serving more than 9,600 students in all 50 states and 62 countries. For more information, visit online. Penn State World Campus is part of Penn State Outreach, the largest unified outreach organization in American higher education. Penn State Outreach serves more than 5 million people each year, delivering more than 2,000 programs to people in all 67 Pennsylvania counties, all 50 states and 114 countries worldwide.

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Last Updated March 12, 2010