Seismic Sleuths
by AGU and FEMA


The people who have shaped our idea of the Earth are pioneers, just as truly as those who struck out in new directions across its surface. This idea may be new to students.


Could a person be a pioneer without leaving home?


Students will:

1. Read a biographical sketch about a pioneer of earth science.

2. Identify the characteristics of a pioneer.

3. Be able to tell why Wegener, Mohorovicic, and Lehmann were pioneers.


+ Student copies of Master 3.2a, Three Pioneers (3 pages --Wegener, Mohorovicic, and Lehmann)

+ Master 3.2b, Chronology: the Beginnings of the Seismological Age

+ Overhead projector and transparencies (optional)

+ Reference books for research (See Unit Resources.)

+ Paper and pens


Teacher Preparation
Assemble a classroom reference shelf of biographical encyclopedias, studies on continental drift and plate tectonics, and books on earthquakes. (See Unit Resources).

A. Introduction
Tell students that you would like them to explore the notion of pioneer. Write the word on the chalkboard or overhead projector and ask the class to brainstorm about the meaning of the word and its implications. Be prepared to accept any reasonable suggestion. Such ideas as risk-taker, adventurer, initiator, innovator, frontier person, and explorer are likely to come forward. You may want to use these terms to build a concept map.

During the course of the brainstorming, remind the class that in a historical sense we tend to think of pioneers as men and women who have moved beyond the edge of settlement. Daniel Boone was such a person, and so were Lewis and Clark and Matthew Henson, the polar explorer. There are other types of pioneers, however--those who are willing to advance new ideas and suggest new theories to explain physical or cultural phenomena. Albert Einstein, with his theory of relativity, is a good example of this kind of pioneer. So is Marie Curie, who worked to develop radium therapy and conducted some of the earliest experiments with radiation.

B. Lesson Development
1.  When the brainstorming session has ended, ask each student to write a one-sentence definition of the term pioneer, using the list generated by the class as a reference. Then have students share their responses to learn if a consensus has developed about the meaning of the term. From the collection of definitions presented by class members, write what seems to be a representative definition on either the board or the overhead. Here are some likely definitions:

A pioneer is a person who is on the cutting edge, someone with the courage and vision to try something new.

A pioneer is the first person to suggest a new idea or to try something that has never been tried before.

A pioneer is a person who prepares the way for others because of his/her courage and foresight.

2. Divide the class into groups of three students each. Provide each group with one copy of Master 3.2a, Three Pioneers. Each of the students may read one essay. When students have finished reading, ask them to give the essay a title and to write a two- or three-sentence summary of the essay in the space provided.

3. With this as context, remind students that when each of these discoveries was first published, it created discussion and even controversy. To understand the kind of excitement each advance in science causes, have half of the students who read about each scientist research the evidence that person offered to support the new theory and the other half research  the views of his or her critics or the reasons why it may not have been accepted immediately. Later in the same period of the next day, invite the groups to present and discuss opposing points of view culled from their reading.

C. Conclusion
Return to the consensus definition of pioneer that the class developed and ask students to apply that definition to these three individuals. To do this, they should write epitaphs for the tombstones of the three scientists. Remind students tat the purpose of an epithph is to summarize a person's life in a brief and pithy fashion. Post the epitaphs on the bulletin board to present the variety of impressions class members have about Wegener, Mohorovicic, and Lehmann.


1.  Make a time line from the information on Master 3.2b, Chronology: The Beginnings of the Seismological Age. You could do this either before class or during class with student participation.

2.  As a class, brainstorm suitable epitaphs for some of  the other pionees mentioned in this lesson and those students know about from other areas of study.

3. Encourage students to read biographies of intellectual exploreres and learn about some of the challenges pioneers have faced.


Use Master 3.2b, Chronology: The Beginnings of the Seismological Age, for your own reference and to help students place the work of these three scientists in the context of other discoveries.


Continental drift: the theory, first advanced by Alfred Wegener, that Earth's continents were originally one land mass, pieces of which split off and gradually migrated to form the continents we know.

Epitaph: an inscription on a tombstone, often intended to sum up the achievements of a person's life.

Meteorology: the study of Earth's atmosphere.

Pioneer: a person who moves into new and uncharted territory.

Plate tectonics: the theory that Earth's crust and upper mantle (the lithosphere are broken into a number of more or less rigid, but constantly moving segments, or plates.

Seismology: the scientific study of earthquakes.

Topography (adj. topographic): the shape of the land; the contours and the arrangement of surface features that characterize a region.