Exploring Earthquakes and Tsunamis: Integrating Science, Social Studies, and Technology

By Sardone, Nancy | Science Scope, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Exploring Earthquakes and Tsunamis: Integrating Science, Social Studies, and Technology


Sardone, Nancy, Science Scope


Visiting places without a guide reminds me of the Dr. Seuss book Oh, the Places You'll Go! which highlights the seemingly endless possibilities of a journey. However, without a guide or model, we are often left rudderless. Jonassen, Strobel, and Gottdenker (2005) state that guides in the form of technology tools are needed for learners to follow paths or, better yet, to develop their own paths to follow, allowing learners to set out on a journey to investigate those specified paths. Current theories in the learning sciences indicate that we can't simply continue to use concrete manipulatives such as globes and atlases in our classrooms as models; rather we must employ interactive tools that provide students with the opportunity for immersive trial and error. Jonassen, Strobel, and Gottdenker (2005) argue that student use of computers and associated software to build visual representations or models of what they are learning is among the "most potentially powerful and engaging methods for fostering and assessing conceptual change" (p. 16).

Once we consider that today's classrooms are filled with students whose daily media exposure is almost 11 hours (Rideout, Foehr, and Roberts 2010), we begin to understand that students want their teachers to "power up" rather than require them to "power down" for learning. Further, educators are urging that technology be integrated more extensively into curricula (NEA 2008; Project Tomorrow 2010), and that this infusion be directed toward higher-order thinking skills (Yell and Box 2008). For curriculum integration to affect students' learning, it is important to locate points where curricula naturally intersect and complement each other. Educators have long recognized the natural connections between science and social studies (Berson, Ouzts, and Walsh 1999; Hannibal, Vasiliev, and Lin 2002; Silverman 2003). The social studies theme of people, places, and environment provides thoughtful context for the countries bordering the Pacific Ocean's "Ring of Fire," where 81% of the world's largest earthquakes and tsunamis occur (USGS 2013). In the classroom activities discussed in this article, students are asked to develop a model of tsunami activity with spreadsheet software, use this model as a foundation to perform research and add to the model. They would then answer questions, investigate tsunami systems with Google Earth and eduMedia's tsunami simulator, and reflect on the people who have experienced these naturally occurring phenomena. The notion of curriculum integration is explored in this article, linking science and social studies in ways that promote deep levels of thinking and meaning that support student learning in both content areas.

Social studies, earthquakes, and tsunamis

The March 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami was the most powerful earthquake to hit Japan and the fourth-most-powerful earthquake overall in the world since recordkeeping began in 1900 (USGS 2012). Teachers can link geography with these devastating natural phenomena in several ways. First, begin by defining the broad terms earthquake and tsunami and explain how they occur. Then explain additional vocabulary terms such as magnitude, epicenter, seismic waves, oceanic trenches, subduction, asthenosphere, plate tectonics, plate boundary, plate convergence, and Ring of Fire.

Using a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) map, students can locate where this earthquake occurred (see Resources); plot the location of the undersea earthquake epicenter (off the Pacific coast of Tohoku, Japan) as well as its depth (30.5 km [19 mi.]); and track the height and distance of the tsunami waves (heights up to 40.5 m [133 ft.] in Miyako, Japan; waves traveled 9.65 km [6 mi.] inland to Sendai, Japan). Students could also be directed to investigate a fact sheet, created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), about the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami (see Resources) that points to the devastation not only in Japan but in the Hawaiian Islands and the coasts of Oregon and California, as well. …

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