Students Get Hands on Learning With Earthquake Forecasting

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Brianna Gibbs/KMXT
Some of Kodiak’s local students are getting hands on experience in real world research these days. The Kodiak Island Borough School District has recently partnered with NASA and other organizations to help monitor earthquake forecasting sensors with the hopes of someday being able to predict when and where earthquakes might occur.
Early Friday morning, a group of four eager Kodiak High School students sit in front of lap tops in the Kodiak Island Borough School District’s conference room.  Strewn around them are engineering sketches, designs, and scribbled numbers and notes. They aren’t skipping class – in fact, due to a district-wide teacher in-service, school wasn’t even scheduled that day, or the two days prior. And while many of their classmates were probably still sleeping in, these four were hard at work, on their own time, communicating with NASA scientists and workin g to make earthquake forecasting a feasible reality for Kodiak, and the world.
“We’re doing this for school, but we’re also doing this for the scientific community. And it’s like real contributions – it’s not just like a science project that somebody’s already done. We’re actually innovating, we’re actually putting forth results and things that people can use that can help the world.”
That’s Junior Richie McKinney, one of the four lead students partaking in Trillium Learning’s American Bridge Project – an initiative that promotes real time, real world projects with big name partners and school districts around the country. In this case, KIBSD is working with NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, Intelesense Technologies and the European Space Agency to help collect data from the world’s first two Global Earthquake Forecasting System Sensing Platforms, which were placed on the island last month. One platform was put in Old Harbor Village, and the second one is visible on the roof of the Gerald C. Wilson Auditorium in Kodiak.Ron Fortunado is the president of Trillium Learning and said the platforms are collecting what’s called pre-earthquake data.
“What they’ve done is they’ve looked at previous earthquakes all over the world and through some of the data that they’ve gathered they’ve identified pre-earthquake signals that are coming from underneath the earth. These tectonic plates, right south of you, of Kodiak Island where the two huge plates meet, they’re producing such incredible pressure down there that its’ actually generating electrical currents. And those currents go right through the rocks like they don’t see it, so you can measure them. And when electricity moves it creates a magnetic field. So they used these sensors from satellites and they saw this increase and spiking of these electrical and magnetic signals. And other things too.”
Seismology has been recording earthquake data for decades, and Fortunado said it’s known that there are often recorded tremors before a quake. However, scientists are discovering that these pre-earthquake signals – things like electrical currents, may actually help forecast earthquakes anywhere from an hour to two weeks in advance.
“Now the European Space Agency is involved because they also understand the importance of something like this. I mean what if, even if you had it an hour ahead of time, what if you could have shut down that nuclear reactor in Japan? I mean, it’s amazing – when you look at the risk management between saving lives and structures and these types of things – everybody gets how important it is to try and make this happen.”
Fortunado said it’s cutting edge stuff, and Kodiak’s students are right in the middle of it. With both platforms installed, he said the students are responsible for making sure the equipment is working properly and collecting ground-based data to send to NASA.
Senior Kyle Ruotsalainen said another term for it is “control data” – what is happening on a regular basis, without an earthquake.
“And then when we register an earthquake on some other systems we will go back and look at the data we got on this during and just before that and see what an earthquake looks like.”
The group of four is working to design their own miniature platforms that will hold the same type of sensors as the first two, but be able to be placed in different locations and help create a better map of Kodiak. Ultimately, McKinney said it’s their goal to create a generic design that can be easily replicated and sent to places all over the world for earthquake forecasting.
“Because if other people can’t use it and other people can’t reproduce it it’s hardly science and it’s just us playing around. And that’s important to us – that we’re doing science right and we’re making sure other people can use it.”
Sophomore John Dunlop said participating in the program has enriched his whole learning experience at Kodiak High School.
“Especially in the sciences and math department.  A lot of the courses in the high school aren’t very hands on but this really helps apply your knowledge to a real world application.”
Junior Levi Purdy agreed, though admitted it’s a bit daunting to know he’s relaying data to NASA.
“There’s an enormous amount of pressure to not make mistakes, just like there is in real life. But at the same time, the opportunities that you’re able to experience are so much larger and so much greater that it brings the entire experience up to another level that you just can’t get in any standard education.”
But the program isn’t just for those four high schoolers. In fact, Fortunado said already about 40 students in both the high school and middle school have taken part in the project, and many teachers are working it into their curriculum as the school year continues. There’s even talk of offering elective science courses specifically tailored to the earthquake forecasting project.
The whole project is relatively new, and teachers, students, Fortunado and even NASA’s scientists are all learning as they go. But for everyone involved, the possibilities are worth the work. Which is why students are foregoing their days off from school to take part in the process.

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