After a strong earthquake struck Puerto Rico in 2020, a group of students quickly designed, programmed and installed a small seismic network to record aftershocks.
By Elisabeth Nadin, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Citation: Nadin, A., 2021, Making the Shaking Count — High schoolers in Puerto Rico set up earthquake alerts with Raspberry Shake, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.221
On Dec. 28, 2019, people across Puerto Rico felt the first of what would turn out to be a series of earthquakes that culminated in a magnitude-6.4 on Jan. 7, 2020. In the weeks following, while some schools were closing due to the threat of building collapse, the Barranquitas Campus of the InterAmerican University of Puerto Rico (BC-IAUPR) was asking parent permission for a group of high-school students to be on campus for a crash course in detecting and reporting seismic activity. The high schoolers were part of Upward Bound — a Department of Education-funded program to increase college success among students from low-income families.
Raspberries in the Classroom
The students had spent the previous summer training on Raspberry Pi, a $40, credit-card-sized computer used to teach programming skills. They had practiced basic programming and networking skills with the sensors; for example, they integrated the device with a 3D printer to make clips for face masks and with a hydraulic claw for use in science experiments.
When the earthquakes began, Gabriel Low, operational manager for the T3 Alliance, which works with Upward Bound to place technology in the classroom, says he saw an opportunity for these students to apply their knowledge and to contribute to their community. The T3 Alliance trains students in three core STEM technologies — Raspberry Pis, 3D printers and drones.
Low reached out to the Upward Bound programs in Puerto Rico right after the earthquakes began to ask if he could come train their students to install and program Raspberry Shake earthquake sensors. Raspberry Shakes are fist-sized instruments that detect ground motion. They are easy enough to use that they’ve been turned into “citizen seismometer stations,” but also precise enough to be integrated into a global seismic network.
“The students hadn’t yet used Raspberry Shakes, but they had practiced the design thinking process and understood how to use the technology,” Low says.
He arrived within a few days, with four sensors in hand.
A crash course in seismology
“I got there on a Thursday, and the next day at 8 a.m. there were eight students ready to dive into this,” says Low. “Over that day, we did a super-crash course on seismology, networking and how the instruments work.” After that, Low let the students decide how to best use the Raspberry Shakes given the situation unfolding on the island.
“We didn’t tell the students what to do,” says Low. “The goal was to guide them into the response they wanted to formulate.” With this creative freedom, the group designed the seismometer setup, programming them as an alert system to spread awareness. “The region near the epicenter had moderate earthquakes almost every hour,” recalls Low, so it was helpful for affected communities to know what was going on.
The students programmed the Raspberry Shakes to broadcast live visualizations of ground motion on TV monitors across campus, alongside the song “Temblor” with each alert. They used four Shakes — one on the Aguadilla campus, one on the Barranquitas campus, and two on the campus in San Germán. In San Germán, the students went even further, setting up a program to automatically feed earthquake information to a public (now deactivated) Twitter account after each event.
The students were excited to install seismic monitoring equipment during an earthquake swarm, says Saraliz González-Meléndez, the director of Upward Bound for BC-IAUPR. “They were right on the scene and felt like what they were doing was important — providing real-time data and thinking about how to share this information with the community.”
“For me as a teacher, teaching about earthquakes and P and S waves, it was pretty surreal to hear an alert and then see those roll across the screen live as we felt an earthquake,” says Low. “You could sense in the students that there was a pride in being there to learn and help.”
Low, G. (2020) Educational Seismographs as response to Puerto Rico Earthquakes. Available at: https://raspberryshake.org/news/educational-seismographs-as-response-to-puerto-rico-earthquakes/