Natalie Balfour looking rather pleased with her seismometer

By Kelly

In a previous post I took a peek at the career trajectory of Dr Natalie Balfour -seismologist and geosciences educator extraordinaire. Natalie is the coordinator of the “Seismometers in Schools” program, which was launched last week at Melrose High School here in Canberra. This week I’d like to follow up with more on the program itself, and why it is an incredibly effective tool to engage young scientists in the Earth Sciences. An idea that is very much in line with a certain blog I know…

“Most seismology lends itself to high school classrooms, particularly when students are learning about the physics of waves, whether it be sound or light” says Natalie. The idea of placing scientific equipment to measure seismic waves is not new, with successful programs run previously in the U.K, the U.S and in France. Students use data collected from their own seismometers to learn about wave properties such as frequency, wavelength and amplitude. However these seismometers are no toys. Display software produces seismographs allowing students to actually apply the fundamentals of maths and physics to their surrounding (and not so surrounding) environment. With the right filtering, this equipment has been able to pick up earthquakes as far as Chile, and even the recent earthquake in Italy!While these events don’t happen every day, there is still much that can be learned about the science that is reported in the media, and its application to real world situations. Take background noise as an example. Natalie has students looking at the influence of school bells, classroom activity and playground rabble on the seismograph record. Ahhhh, the signal to noise ratio, the scourge of every scientist! And a problem I have just learned goes beyond the guise of contaminating radiocarbon.

Currently there are two seismometers in local schools (Melrose High School and Daramalan College), one in Natalie’s office and a test instrument located at Mount Stromolo that is used for calibration. The plan is for the program to expand to around 40 schools around Australia, with the network producing data that can be used to locate, and calculate the magnitude of earthquakes in real time. The students not only get an engaging practical, but the data goes into a repository in the U.S (the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, or IRIS) for use by the wider research community. Natalie is also coordinating the supply of ‘quake catchers’. These USB accelerometers may be less sensitive (similar to the device found in your phone or remote control), but they are also less expensive, ensuring the broadest range of school participation. The device still effectively demonstrates the principles of seismicity by picking up vibrations, as does the construct-it-yourself option, the slinky seismometer.

Whichever the device, it provides a platform for education that can grab the attention and imagination of young students and promote awareness of the world around us. Students will get a peek in to Natalie’s world, one with a view (seismically speaking) over the Southwest Pacific, where all the Earth’s movements are of interest, not just those that occur with catastrophic impact on human centres.

For more information on the Seismometers in Schools program click here, or go to their Facebook page. And for further teaching materials or information regarding seismology visit the truly excellent site run by IRIS.