How Quake Filmmaking Project Shakes Up Science Education

When the Big One comes, a group of local students won’t need to be told how to protect themselves. They’ve already learned the basics thanks to an unusual assignment: Make their own short disaster movie complete with dramatic soundtrack, shaky camerawork and special effects.

With help from UC San Diego Extension and other organizations, students from Gompers Prep Academy recently gained insight into the geological pressures that create earthquakes and the huge importance of five little words: “Drop, Cover and Hold On!”

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To find out more about the classes offered through this partnership, call (619) 263-2302 email, or visit UCSD Extension on the web.

“We thought disaster movies would be a fun way to learn about real earthquake science,” says co-teacher Erica Mitchell, a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. “The students were able to remember the science much better because they had to figure out how to incorporate it into the script, and actually act it out.”

The students took part in the 10-hour class — a blend of instruction in science and filmmaking — with the support of UC San Diego Extension, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Elementary Institute of Science, an organization based in Southeast San Diego.

The Institute provides science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education to students. For this class, titled “How to Make a Disaster Movie Based on Real Science,” instructors added an arts component through filmmaking.

The students spent half their time learning about quakes, Mitchell says. “How do earthquakes happen? What are the different kinds of seismic waves? Where are our local faults? What areas have high seismic hazard? And how do you prepare for an earthquake?”

Then the students spent the rest of each class producing the movie: Writing the script, acting, filming, and editing the scenes. They even created props and special effects; the students were able to create a realistic portrait of quakes in action by pulling books off shelves with fishing lines.

Among other things, the film shows the students reacting to quakes and even to an early warning sign. “If a large earthquake happens on the southern San Andreas fault, we can expect about 30 seconds of warning before the destructive surface waves arrive,” Mitchell says. “The students worked on that as well as including ‘Drop, Cover, and Hold On!’ in the script.”

Gompers Preparatory Academy students Josslyn Perez, Blanca Cortez-Garcia and Isabel Chavez (from left to right) work on a scene for an earthquake movie based on real science. In the scene, the students are playing seismologists who discover a new fault line just as an earthquake hits.

Edna Ruiz, an 11th-grade student who served as a cameraperson and acted in a nurse role, says the class was “absolutely fun and interesting” and benefited from knowledgeable teachers. “The most interesting thing I learned was about how many earthquakes there are in the world,” she says. (By one estimate, there are 50 measurable quakes on earth per day, or 20,000 a year.)

“This is a great partnership because it provides a way for Scripps scientists to share their work with the public and inspire students about earth and ocean sciences,” Mitchell says.

The partnership between UC San Diego Extension, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Elementary Institute of Science also offers a number of other classes and summer programs for students age 8-18 in such subjects as computer programming, “messy science” and robotics

“We seek to connect UCSD to the community we serve, and this is a great means to accomplish this goal,” says Ed Abeyta, assistant dean of community engagement and director of pre-collegiate programs for UCSD Extension.

What’s next? Abeyta says that UC San Diego’s recent acquisition of Sally Ride Science, which focuses on providing STEM education to girls and young women, will add to Extension’s growing roster of educational programs designed to prepare students, especially those in underserved neighborhoods, for the rigors of college and career.

“We will continue to develop new classes and will find ways to bring this cutting-edge education to communities throughout the region by working with educational, civic and corporate partners,” he says. “The mission of UC San Diego Extension is to provide educational opportunities at every stage of life to better our community and to bolster our economy. This partnership with the Elementary Institute of Science and Scripps Institution of Oceanography is just one example of that mission in action.”

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