Schools offer science lessons to explain tsunami

Learning from disaster

Eighth-grade science instructor Jonathan Ayres gives a demonstration Monday to his class at Howard Bishop Middle School showing how tsunamis affect land.

DAVID MASSEY/Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 4, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 3, 2005 at 11:45 p.m.
Students returned from winter break Monday, and many area science teachers took time to focus on the Indian Ocean tsunami.
The lessons included geography, physics and ways to react in the wake of a human tragedy.
"With a disaster of this magnitude, all of the students are aware of it," said Jeff Charbonnet, principal at Howard Bishop Middle School. "The teachers are using it as a teachable moment."
Charbonnet said even students not normally excited in science class "are on the edge of their seat."
"Education is most effective when it can be made relevant," he added.
Jonathan Ayres, an eighth-grade science teacher at Howard Bishop, devoted all of Monday's classes to a lesson on tsunamis.
"I felt like this is what the kids wanted to talk about," he said.
Ayres showed students some of the science behind tsunamis, what causes them and how they affect people.
Students marveled as Ayres used a small model known as a "wave tank" to show how an offshore earthquake could bring waves to shore.
A 9.0-magnitude earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra in south Asia on Dec. 26 spawned the waves that doomed coastal areas around the Indian Ocean.
"See where the waves are hitting, that's called destruction," Ayres told students during his fourth-period class, referring to how the waves move in an arc-shaped direction toward land.
Eighth-grader Michael Harmon said he had been following the news media coverage of the disaster, but did not know what caused the tsunami.
"I didn't know much about it until today," said Michael, 13. "I had no idea about earthquakes causing waves."
Students viewed a map depicting the handful of sites worldwide where several plates of the planet's crust overlap and grind against one another.
The heat beneath the earth pushes against the crust, and pressure that builds up over time is released, causing an earthquake, Ayres said.
A north-south fault near the Sumatra coast in the Indian Ocean cracked along a 745-mile stretch.
"That's like a crack going from here to Washington, D.C.," Ayres told students.
The waves the earthquake caused wiped out coastal resorts and communities in countries in southern Asia and east Africa even though the continents are 2,800 miles apart across the Indian Ocean.
"How much force does that have behind it?" a student asked, referring to the earthquake and the waves it spawned.
Looking at a classroom aid, Ayres replied that an earthquake with a 6.0 magnitude had a force similar to 100 atomic bombs.
By some reported estimates, the force behind the Dec. 26 quake was equal to detonating a million atomic bombs.
Ayres added that the speed behind the tsunami reached 500 mph and the crashing waves topped as high as 100 feet.
"Can you imagine a wave going 500 miles per hour?" Ayres asked. "That's as fast as a jet plane going overhead."
Students also discussed the human loss the tsunami caused.
The United Nations estimates the total number of dead will reach 150,000.
"Think of a Gator football game, how many people are in the stadium?" Ayres asked.
"75,000," a boy replied. "Think of two times that many already dead," Ayres said. "And that's not counting people with broken arms or limbs."
Several of Ayres' students said their families had donated to the tsunami relief effort. Other students spoke of collecting donations to contribute to the relief effort.
Principal Charbonnet said schools provided an important role in helping students to make sense of such a disaster.
"Being humans we need to talk about it," he said. "Teachers can give them a safe atmosphere to talk about their feelings."
Douane D. James can be reached at 374-5087 or jamesd@

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