Hacking STEM: Using computational thinking to understand earthquakes

A seismograph made from everyday objects streams data into to a custom Excel worksheet table as students shake the table it rests on.

Happy Computer Science Education Week!

Millions of students worldwide are in the process of discovering the possibilities of instructing machines to accomplish tasks. Whether completing the Minecraft Hour of Code tutorial, or watching a Pixar In a Box episode on Khan Academy, the spirit of discovery, experimentation and the art of Computer Science is celebrated while students build core 21st century software engineering skills.

This month, the Education Workshop has partnered with the California Academy of Sciences and KQED to combine coding with mechanical engineering and data science to empower students to use computational thinking to experience how engineers and computer scientists are working together to mitigate the impact of earthquakes.

On the Hacking STEM website, you’ll find all the teaching resources you need to bring these lessons to your classroom. As part of this lesson on earthquakes and tectonic plates, students will spend an hour building and coding academic scientific instruments that help them understand seismic data. They will experience using computer science in service of scientific inquiry, working with everyday objects like plastic cups, magnets and spools to create seismographs that respond to simulated earthquakes.  They will also write code that allows them to connect their seismograph to a microcontroller and stream real-time data into a customized Excel worksheet.

Caption: Students build seismographs and connect to a microcontroller to visualize real-time data in Excel.       2

Students build seismographs and connect a microcontroller to visualize real-time data in Excel.

For those who can spend a bit more time studying seismic data, an additional modern engineering activity enables students to model a tuned mass damper, just like one that mitigates earthquake damage in skyscrapers.  The project simulates technology installed in the Taipei 101 Tower in Taiwan, illustrating how engineering can be used to reduce the impact of seismic activity.
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Students test the impact of their mass tuned dampers in Excel by running a set of trials with and without the pendulum.

Finally, students can engage with a 5-minute Excel big data activity that maps 10 years of U.S. Geological Survey earthquake data onto a virtual globe, revealing the relationship between earthquakes and the boundaries of tectonic plates.  Using a preformatted worksheet, students can easily see the raw data that exposes the latitude and longitude of each earthquake.  With a few clicks, the spreadsheet translates this data onto a map revealing seismic hotspots like the Ring of Fire in the Pacific Ocean.

These NGSS aligned projects were developed to complement a rich lesson plan and Educator’s Guide created by the California Academy of Science and KQED, called Earthquakes and Plate Tectonics. Educators will find activities that explain the fundamental scientific principles behind seismic activity and supplemental materials, which help to illustrate the unit.

We hope that those who are looking for an applied coding challenge in service of scientific inquiry will explore this month’s offering on www.aka.ms/hackingstem  and help students discover the power of computer science.


Additional Hour of Code resources from Microsoft here.

Follow us for more on HackingSTEM on Twitter: @Microsoft_EDU