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January/February 1999

Guest Columnist:
Michelle Hall-Wallace
Department of Geosciences
University of Arizona
1040 East 4th Street
Tucson, AZ 85721-0077


Computer and communication technology is at the heart of seismology. Equipped with a computer and a link to the Internet, the world becomes the laboratory for the typical seismologist. New frontiers for collecting, analyzing, viewing, and presenting seismic data are continually pushed as technology advances. Too often, though, our ability to teach on these same frontiers cannot keep pace. The technology we use in our research does not transfer easily to the undergraduate classroom. It is often too advanced for the typical undergraduate student to explore new scientific developments or fundamental theories and share in the excitement of scientific discovery.

One of the greatest obstacles to using real seismic data in teaching at the undergraduate level is that most of the software used in seismological research is UNIX-based. Limited access to computers with the UNIX operating system and the effort required to learn the operating system create a tremendous road block for introducing any type of data analysis at the undergraduate level. Fortunately, the call to advance our discipline in the classroom has been answered by some colleagues who have developed instructional software for the Macintosh, Windows, and Internet platforms. However, many opportunities for development of educational software and related classroom activities remain. The power of instructional software lies in its ability to assist students in visualizing complex phenomena or quickly analyzing data to gain insight into problems. This requires software of many different types, including demonstrations or tutorials and analytical software that provide opportunities for genuine problem-solving by students. During the IRIS Annual Workshop July 7-12, 1998, a workshop for software developers and seismology educators was convened to review the state of instructional software for seismology and to identify the needs of both communities. While the software presented at the workshop does not include all that is available, it did address a wide spectrum of topics in seismology and the full range of computer platforms. The workshop focused on freeware or shareware but included some applications that provide a GUI interface or other front end to a commercial package. Applications ranged from software developed to ease the transition of students from desktop computers into the UNIX/SAC environment, to a Web GUI interface for the UNIX-based SeisUNIX, to the granddaddies of educational software--Seismic Waves and SeisVolE. Participants included university faculty, research scientists from consortia and government agencies, software developers, and K-12 educators.

A Web site with descriptions of software presented at the IRIS workshop and others that I have become aware of in recent months is located at The site includes links to ftp sites maintained by the individual developers for downloading the freeware and shareware. Additionally, I invite others who have developed instructional software (free or shareware) for seismology or know of someone who has to send me a note so that I may include information or links to access the software at this site. I hope this opportunity will inspire others who have developed a "home grown" application for teaching to share that software with the seismology community.

The face-to-face interaction between educators and developers provided opportunities for both communities to get new ideas and learn new tricks. Participants were given opportunities to learn new software and gather ideas for applying that software in their classrooms. During the workshop, developers presented their software by guiding participants through demonstrations. Participants followed along on their own computers and explored the features of the applications. Many developers also shared classroom exercises that include use of the software. Developers gathered new ideas for making substantive improvements to their software that went beyond simple improvements to the interfaces. Participants stressed the need for software that is student-friendly and quickly learned so that students spend time investigating a seismological phenomenon or analyzing data rather than struggling with the tool. To have the broadest impact, software should also be instructor-friendly so that K-16 earth science teachers with an understanding of earthquakes but no particular training in seismology are comfortable introducing the technology to their students.

One of the primary outcomes of the meeting was a general consensus that the seismology and geophysics communities need to coordinate efforts better to share effective teaching ideas and materials. Participants stressed the need for a forum to share high-quality laboratory and classroom materials for undergraduate geophysics teaching. Others suggested that a follow-up workshop be offered to focus on the essential geophysical concepts we should be teaching at the undergraduate level. To address these suggestions, the IRIS Education and Outreach Committee has developed a new Web site designed to facilitate the sharing of teaching resources. The site, located at, accepts noncopyrighted images, graphs, and other visual aids for teaching seismology and geophysics. In addition, a special session focusing on seismology education will be held at the 1999 SSA convention in Seattle. See the annual meeting Web site at or contact Catherine Johnson at IRIS (

SRL encourages guest columnists to contribute to "EduQuakes." Please contact Larry Ruff with your ideas. His e-mail address is

Posted: 22 January 1999
URL's updated: 21 January 2003