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An 8.9 Earthquake Shakes Japan… How should we talk about it with the students?

As a devastating earthquake hit Japan (8.9 on the Richter scale), I would like to express my heartfelt sorrow and concern for the people in affected regions. Many students in Vancouver and all over the world will be affected by it either directly or indirectly. As much as this event is extremely scary (and many of us who live in Vancouver and in Western United States, cannot but think that a powerful earthquake will shake our area at some point or another), a science teachers needs to think how to talk about it with the students. I am not sure if avoiding the topic will be useful as the kids will hear about it from the internet, TV or from their parents. This is a teachable moment for better or for worse. Interestingly, developed by Charles Richter in 1935, Richter Magnitude scale is a logarithmic scale (which means that the difference between the earthquake of a magnitude of 8.9 and of  7.9 means a tenfold increase in the magnitude of the earthquake.  Let me quote wikipedia here:

Because of the logarithmic basis of the scale, each whole number increase in magnitude represents a tenfold increase in measured amplitude; in terms of energy, each whole number increase corresponds to an increase of about 31.6 times the amount of energy released, and each increase of 0.2 corresponds to a doubling of the energy released.

While the topic of earthquakes might be very scary as many of our students have had experienced them, a teacher can use it to discuss many interesting things about the Earth’s geology and about the mathematics to describe the quakes. In addition, the entire issue of earth quake preparedness has lots of science ideas embedded in it. This is another opportunity to make science relevant to the students.

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