Hands-on Activity: Magnitude of the Richter Scale

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

A photo shows the severe damage to a community in San Francisco, CA. Shown are several apartment buildings that are toppled over.
Figure 1. Severe earthquake damage during the famous San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
copyright
Copyright © http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/seg/hazard/slideset/5/ 5_slides.html

Summary

In this activity, students learn about the Richter Scale for measuring earthquakes. The students make a booklet with drawings that represent each rating of the Richter Scale.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers often invent scales or systems to use as measurement tools. For example, the Richter scale is an invented mathematical (logarithmic) tool that measures the magnitude of an earthquake. By using a common rating scale, engineers can compare earthquake activity measured from everywhere on Earth. Analyzing the amount of energy released by an earthquake helps with future prediction of the size and intensity of earthquakes.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Understand the difference between the Richter Scale and the Mercalli Scale for earthquakes (a scale that uses instruments and a scale that uses human observation).
  • Students will understand how the Richter Scale works.
  • Explain the different levels of the Richter Scale using words or pictures.
  • Understand how a community could use the Richter Scale.
  • Understand why engineers develop rating scales for earthquakes.
  • Explain the Richter Scale on their own through drawing and writing.
  • Review multiplication by tens.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Analyze and interpret data on natural hazards to forecast future catastrophic events and inform the development of technologies to mitigate their effects. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Recognize that in a multi-digit number, a digit in one place represents 10 times as much as it represents in the place to its right and 1/10 of what it represents in the place to its left. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Explain patterns in the number of zeros of the product when multiplying a number by powers of 10, and explain patterns in the placement of the decimal point when a decimal is multiplied or divided by a power of 10. Use whole-number exponents to denote powers of 10. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Natural hazards have local, national and global impacts such as volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and thunderstorms (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Make predictions and draw conclusions about the impact of natural hazards on human activity – locally and globally (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

  • 3 ½ sheets (cut lengthwise) of white copy paper
  • 1 ½ sheet (cut lengthwise) of any color construction paper
  • Variety of crayons, colored pencils, and markers
  • Stapler (students may share)
  • Calculator (students may share)
  • Copy of the Richter Scale Worksheet
  • Shared copy of the Richter Scale Handout

Introduction/Motivation

Engineers strive to accurately predict earthquakes and inform people about the size and force of them. They design and build structures with the intention of protecting humans from the potentially damaging effects of the tremendous force of and/or the shaking caused by an earthquake. By using a common rating scale for earthquakes, engineers can predict which earthquakes are going to cause the most violent seismic waves and damage to structures. There are two commonly-used scales to rate earthquakes 1) the Richter Scale and 2) the Mercalli Scale.

The force at which an earthquake shakes the ground is measured with the Richter Scale, which rates the earthquake's actual force on a scale from 0 to 9. A 0 level Richter rating cannot even be felt by a person, while a rating of 8 shakes hard enough to crumble buildings. The Richter Scale is based on a reading from a seismograph — a device that detects the waves sent out by an earthquake. Each number on the Richter scale indicates an increase of ten times the force of the previous number. For example, the Richter scale rating of 2 is ten times the force of a level 1. A Richter scale level of 3 is ten times more powerful than a level two and one hundred times more powerful than a level l, etc. Think about pressing your hand down on your desk lightly, this might be a level two force of an earthquake. Next, press down on your desk a lot harder: this may be the force behind a level three earthquake. Now, stand up and press down on your desk with all the force you can muster: this could be a level four or five earthquake. If pressing down with all of your might is a level four or five earthquake, image what a level nine earthquake would do. It would break your desk! There are only approximately 10 level seven or higher earthquakes that happen per year, anywhere in the world.

In this activity, we will get a better sense of how each Richter Scale rating relates to each other. We will do this by assigning each level a time: a level one earthquake will represent 1 second, a level 2 earthquake will represent 1x10 or 10 seconds, and so on. We will then create a booklet to explain the force of earthquakes, as measured on a Richter Scale.

Procedure

Before the Activity

  • Cut all the necessary paper for the activity.
  • Make copies of the Richter Scale Worksheet, one per student.
  • Make copies of the Richter Scale Handout, one per every two students.
  • Make one Richter Scale booklet as an example by following steps 2 – 5 below.

With the Students

  1. Lead a brief discussion around the topic of the Richter Scale. Has anyone ever heard of the Richter scale? What does it measure? (Answer: force of an earthquake) Today we will learn more about this scale.
  2. Layer the three pieces of white copy paper in one stack with one piece of construction paper on top for the cover.
  3. Fold in half to make a small booklet.
  4. Staple the booklet along the fold.
  5. Have students decorate the cover. Tell them to draw a picture having to do with an earthquake or the Richter Scale. Suggest a house or building that has been damaged by an earthquake or a picture of the Earth shaking.
  6. Number the pages from 1 to 9.
  7. Distribute a copy of the Richter Scale Worksheet to each student.
  8. Review with the students what the Richter Scale represents. (Answer: how much force is exerted by an earthquake or how strong it is)
  9. Tell the students that they will be comparing Richter Scale levels by relating them to time. More specifically, a level one earthquake will be 1 second. Since a level two earthquake is 10 times "bigger" than a level 1 earthquake, it will also be 10 times bigger in terms of seconds (1x10 seconds) or 10 seconds.
  10. Have students complete the Richter Scale Worksheet by calculating the total number of seconds each level would represent. Students should be able to calculate at least the first three levels on their own. Consider allowing students to work in groups or use a calculator for levels 4 through 9. After the student's finish the Richter Scale Worksheet, have them ask another student to check their work.
  11. As a class, brainstorm events that can be drawn in the booklet for each event. For example, one second could equal a heart-beat, blink of an eye, snap of a finger.
  12. Have students title each page of the booklet with the numbers they calculated in the handout (i.e., page one is labeled 1, page two is labeled 10, page three is labeled 1000 or 1 minute 40 seconds and so on).
  13. On each page of the booklet, have students illustrate an event that describes the amount of time associated with each level.
  14. Have a few students present their booklet designs to the class.

Attachments

Troubleshooting Tips

Students may have difficulty comparing the Richter scale to a time scale. Explain to the students that scaling or making comparisons is often done to help understand a concept (such as the odds of winning a lottery being greater than being struck by lightning, or if the earth was the size of a softball, the sun would be the size of a normal-sized classroom).

The time periods given are approximate. If a level one on the Richter scale is 1 second, a level three would be 1*10*10 = 102 = 100 seconds or 1 minute and 40 seconds. Have students calculate the exact time knowing that there are 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour. Students can be allowed to use calculators.

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Class Discussion: As a class, have students engage in open discussion. Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses. Ask the students:

  • Has anyone ever heard of the Richter scale?
  • What does it measure?

Formation: Demonstrate the Richter Scale forces with the students at their desks. Have them press down on their desk lightly. This represents a level two force of an earthquake. Next have them press down on their desk a lot harder. This represents the force behind a level three earthquake. Next, have the students stand up and press down on their desk with all of their strength. This represents a level four or five earthquake. Ask the students:

  • If pressing down with all of your might is a level four or five earthquake, what kind of damage would be caused by a level nine earthquake? (Answer: It would break your desk.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet/Pairs Check: Have students complete the Richter Scale Worksheet by calculating the total number of seconds each level would represent. After students finish the Richter Scale handout, have them ask another student to check their work.

Post-Activity Assessment

Show and Tell: Have a few students present their booklet designs to the class or display the booklets in the classroom or school.

Activity Extensions

Have students express the time period a third way. For example, a level 6 is 100,000 seconds, which is approximately 1 day and four hours. Students could express this as 28 hours knowing that there are 24 hours in a day, or 1 and 1/6 day, or 1680 minutes, etc.

There are approximately 800,000 earthquakes a year with a Richter Scale rating of 1-2. There are only around approximately 10 level seven or higher earthquakes that happen per year, anywhere in the world. Have students research where most of the earthquakes happen. Assign them a Richter Scale number, and have them research where and when an earthquake of that level happened in the last year.

References

http://earthquake.usgs.gov/4kids/

Contributors

Jessica Todd; Melissa Straten; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell

Copyright

© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Acknowledgements

The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: August 10, 2017

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