March/April 2017 – Vol. 29 No. 6

Earth Science in Your Backyard

Posted: Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

by Liz Colvard

For any student of science, one of the most difficult tasks is making the leap from the abstract to reality. Why should I care about learning this? How does it impact me? The beauty of living in California is that we’re surrounded by earth science in action every day, and we’re constantly faced with the importance of understanding the world immediately around us. Making the leap isn’t all that difficult. As the Nation’s largest earth science agency, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is a rich source of materials for both learning and teaching about topics like plate tectonics, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and landslides. Unlike federal agencies like NASA and NOAA, the USGS has never had an Education Program, so all of our education products are written by individual scientists who simply have a passion for education. That means that although USGS education resources are somewhat haphazard, they’re all backed by solid science. The USGS Education website compiles all the best USGS websites for use in the classroom. Organized by grade level and topic, it is designed for teachers.

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California is no stranger to volcanic unrest. Prior to the 1980 activity at Mount St. Helens, the 1914-1917 eruptions at northern California’s Lassen Peak were the most recent eruptions in the Cascade Range (did you know that seven volcanoes in the Cascade Range have erupted since 1776?). The separate chain of Mono-Inyo Craters (east of Yosemite) last erupted just 300 years ago at Paoha Island in Mono Lake. And fairly recent unrest at Mammoth Mountain is thought to be related to an intrusion of magma deep below the volcano in 1989. The USGS has two excellent volcano teaching guides for locations outside California, but their contents can easily be applied to any volcano. Explore the many classroom activities in Alaska Volcanoes Guidebook for Teachers, like using bottles of soda to understand the role of dissolved gases in volcanic eruptions, or using breadcrumbs and water to examine the impacts of volcanic aerosols in the atmosphere. Living with a Volcano in your Backyard has more than 30 activities with a focus on the Cascade Range. Or demonstrate the forces that build a caldera (like Long Valley caldera) using flour and a bicycle pump.

There aren’t many places in the world where you can walk from one tectonic plate to another, but California’s 800-mile-long San Andreas Fault Zone offers the opportunity to do so. The fault zone marks the region where the North American plate and the Pacific plate are sliding past each other in a (mostly) horizontal motion. And right offshore from Cape Mendocino, those plates intersect with a third plate – the small Gorda plate – at the Mendocino Triple Point. Tectonic forces created by all three plates are the source of tens of thousands of earthquakes in California every year, many of which are large enough to be felt. Make sure your classroom participates in the annual Great California Shake Out, which offers classroom activities for learning about and preparing for earthquakes. Remind students of the power of a large earthquake by showing them amazing USGS ground shaking animations of actual and hypothetical earthquakes. The award-winning Shockwaves video has dramatic historical footage of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and shows what we’re learning about California earthquakes using modern technology.

When a significant earthquake does occur, have your students contribute to our USGS database by filling out a Did You Feel It? questionnaire, then check out the Earthquake Summary Poster for that event to get more information. The posters are a quick and easy way (with plenty of diagrams) to learn about an earthquake’s epicenter, the plate tectonic environment, the earthquake history of the area, and other information that helps you and your students put the earthquake in context.

Landslides occur in every state of the U.S., but California’s geography and climate make it an ideal setting for landslides. Learn more about the destructive nature of landslides and what causes them in the video Riding the Storm, about a 1982 storm that triggered over 18,000 landslides in the Bay Area. Another video, Debris Flow Dynamics, might be thirty years old, but it’s still the most popular film at the USGS Training Center. The USGS Landslide Handbook offers many illustrations and descriptions of different kinds of landslides.

If you just need help teaching basic geologic concepts, try using your own schoolyard and activities from Schoolyard Geology. That website was created by a USGS scientist who taught geology classes at San Quentin State Prison and needed a way to take his students on a virtual field trip. It uses simple features found on the street or in the playground to demonstrate geologic principles, and includes several classroom activities, like a “GeoSleuth” murder mystery. Another website, The Life Cycle of a Mineral Deposit is a teaching guide with ten activity-based learning exercises (many using foods like cookies and cupcakes) that educate students on basic geologic concepts, with an emphasis on minerals in our everyday lives. Make your own toothpaste using antacid tablets and baking soda.

Keep in mind that the USGS is one of the most accessible federal agencies. You and your students can always submit questions about our products and sciences by using the Web form, Web chat, and phone numbers listed on the Contact USGS website.

Liz Colvard is with USGS Science Information Services

Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.

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Written by Guest Contributor

From time to time CSTA receives contributions from guest contributors. The opinions and views expressed by these contributors are not necessarily those of CSTA. By publishing these articles CSTA does not make any endorsements or statements of support of the author or their contribution, either explicit or implicit. All links to outside sources are subject to CSTA’s Disclaimer Policy: http://www.classroomscience.org/disclaimer.