Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Understanding Earthquakes: Investigating the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake of 2004

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Understanding Earthquakes: Investigating the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake of 2004

Article excerpt

It began at 7:59 a.m. on December 26, 2004. What started as a typical day soon turned into one of the deadliest days in modern history when a 9.3 magnitude earthquake--the third largest ever recorded--struck off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia (National Centers for Environmental Information 2014). The massive quake lasted at least 10 minutes and devastated the Indian Ocean. The quake displaced an estimated 30 km3 of water, unleashing a massive tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed an estimated 227,898 people, and caused damages of more than $10 billion throughout the region. The wave hit Aceh, the hardest-hit region of Indonesia, in 15 minutes. Within two hours, waves reached across the ocean to Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. In seven hours, the effects of the massive quake were felt as far away as the east coast of Africa. Today we remember the quake as a potent example of nature's formidable power. This article describes a high school Earth science unit that anchors student learning about earthquakes in the powerful context of the Sumatran earthquake of 2004.

The unit outlined here uses a model-based inquiry (MBI) unit design. MBI is a way to deeply engage learners in content by developing and refining scientific explanations of a phenomenon through constructing, revising, and testing models (Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten 2008). A model--as an abstract representation used to explain or make predictions about a natural phenomenon--can change as understanding of the phenomenon improves (Krajcik and Merritt 2012). This unit uses modeling as a tool to help students articulate their ideas and develop conceptual understanding. An MBI unit, as described below, is designed around three distinct stages: eliciting students' initial ideas about the phenomenon, supporting their ongoing changes in thinking through engagement in specific activities and practices, and pressing students for evidence-based explanations (see Gray, Rogan-Klyve, and Clark-Huyck 2016; Askew and Gray 2017) for examples).

The first step in designing an MBI unit is to select a phenomenon that is both grade-level and content appropriate. The phenomenon is an anchor for the unit, supplying a context for learning the topic (Svoboda and Passmore 2011). The selected phenomenon needs to be context rich, having taken place at a specific time under specific conditions, necessitating a model explanation (Ambitious Science Teaching n.d.). Using an anchoring phenomenon in that way gives students the opportunity to practice real science in the classroom. Many students have never experienced an earthquake and are far removed from the topic. Therefore, selecting a phenomenon that will grab their attention and excite their curiosity and sense of discovery is important. The Sumatran earthquake of 2004 was selected to engage students in developing a sophisticated understanding of earthquakes.

Scientific background

The Sumatran earthquake of 2004 had a moment magnitude ([M.sub.W]) of 9.3 (Stein and Okal 2005). That quake occurred at an area in the Indian Ocean where an oceanic part of the Indian plate is being subducted beneath the Burma plate (Stein and Okal 2005). Strain built up as those two plates converged (at approximately 20 mm per year) at the locked fault, causing deformation (Figure 1). When the strain finally exceeded the fault's frictional strength, the plates slipped, releasing energy in the form of seismic waves that traveled through the earth and across the crust. Scientists used information from those seismic waves to determine the specifics of the event (see "On the web"). The Sumatran earthquake is of great interest as an anchoring phenomenon because it also triggered a large-scale tsunami that killed nearly 300,000 people in the area. The severity of that event, how it affected the world's population, and the availability of pertinent scientific resources made the Sumatran earthquake a productive anchoring phenomenon for this unit. …

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