Deep beneath Nepal, two tectonic plates converge. The ground shakes with many small tremors and occasional devastating earthquakes as the Indian subcontinent slides below Eurasia in the slow-motion collision forming the Himalayas.
Nepal is draped across 800 kilometers (500 miles) of this “seismic hazard zone,” but the country does not teach seismology or earthquake preparedness in its schools. Shiba Subedi, a Nepali doctoral candidate studying earthquake seismology at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, is currently working to change that through the Seismology at School in Nepal program.
Subedi and his Ph.D. adviser began planning the program in the fall of 2017. Its twin goals are local community education and the generation of open-access earthquake data: the Nepal School Seismology Network. In service of these goals, they have created and distributed educational materials on earthquakes for use in classrooms and hosted a workshop to help educators integrate the materials into their curricula. They have also installed 22 seismometers in schools across central and western Nepal and made the data they collect freely available online. They published their progress to date in Frontiers in Earth Science this month.
A Community-First Approach to Earthquake Education
On 25 April 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake shook Nepal. The Gorkha earthquake radiated out from its epicenter 80 kilometers (50 miles) northwest of the capital of Kathmandu, killing roughly 9,000 people and leveling hundreds of thousands of buildings across the country.
Subedi was in Kathmandu at the time, having just finished his master’s degree in physics. “During the earthquake, I came to witness the injuries of my friends and the damage to infrastructure around me,” Subedi said. He realized that many people lost their lives “just because of the lack of understanding of what an earthquake actually is and what precautions are needed.”
In 2017, Subedi decided to pursue a Ph.D. with György Hetényi, an Earth science professor at the University of Lausanne who has worked extensively in the Himalayas. Hetényi came up with the idea of equipping secondary schools in remote villages around the area of the 2015 Gorkha earthquake with low-cost seismometers. The seismometers would serve a dual purpose by giving students a hands-on learning tool as well as creating a local seismology network collecting real-time data. Hetényi and Subedi also decided to develop teaching materials for the schools, in the hope that educating schoolchildren about earthquakes would be the most effective way to educate an entire community.
The Right Tools for the Right Schools
The first task was to select the best seismometer for the project. They needed a model that was low-cost, low-maintenance, and easy to use while also providing useful earthquake data for the network. Subedi and Hetényi purchased four sample models (with names like “the Lego” and “the Slinky”) to test in the lab, ultimately settling on the Raspberry Shake 1D (RS1D).
Emily Wolin, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, called the RS1D a “great choice.” RS1Ds are ideal for teaching: They are small, sturdy, and transparent and allow students to see their inner workings.
The next step was choosing the right schools. Over 100 schools in the selected area of western Nepal submitted an application to participate, and Subedi and Hetényi needed to balance adequate coverage of their study area with the logistical feasibility of installing and maintaining the seismometers. Some schools were highly motivated to participate but lacked a reliable electricity supply or an Internet connection, for instance. Subedi’s local knowledge proved crucial to locating the 22 best schools and gaining their support for the project.
“Shiba has such a broad network of contacts, both geographically and thematically, that no foreigner will ever have,” Hetényi said. “This was absolutely key to implement the project locally, and also very much for the local acceptance by teachers, students, school principals, [and] other people who helped.”
The final seismometer was installed in the spring of 2019. That April, over 80 teachers gathered in the city of Pokhara for an educational seismology workshop. (The workshop was supported by an AGU Celebrate 100 grant.) One of the workshop attendees—secondary school teacher Kalpana Pandey—said that she came away with more ideas and resources to teach students about earthquakes. She particularly appreciated how Hetényi demonstrated P and S waves with a Slinky (each teacher was also given a Slinky to use in their own classrooms) and the care he took in explaining the science, showing sensitivity to local religious practices.
Religious sensitivity was front-of-mind for the team. Hetényi consulted with an expert in Hinduism before the workshop, which Subedi called “an excellent concept.”
In rural Nepali communities, many people understand earthquakes in religious or traditional terms. By meeting with an expert in Hinduism, Hetényi learned that “Hindus don’t have exclusivist perspectives and can accept other explicatory systems,” he said. “I needed to make sure that I treated science and religion on an equal level, without any judgment.”
“We were conscious of the fact that we should not oppose religious beliefs while explaining the earthquake science. To explain everything in English, it could be a little bit complex,” Subedi said. “In the end, the event was a great success.”
To date, the team estimates that over 18,000 students have benefited from Seismology at School in Nepal, and the RS1D network has detected nearly 200 local earthquakes—data that are freely available online.
“If the data [are] kept in a box, the local population will see it almost as a secret project, with very little and usually delayed information for them,” Hetényi said. “But if the waveforms of the earthquake they just felt show up in an app on their smartphone, or in the classroom’s computer screen, they will immediately see the benefit.”
Wolin applauded the project’s research benefits as well. “Before this project, there [were] no publicly available data from seismometers in western Nepal,” she said. A network of 22 stations with open-access data “will improve scientists’ ability to detect and locate earthquakes.”
Subedi and Hetényi hope to continue building on the project, ultimately expanding their network across the whole country. They also hope to install stronger seismometers to complement the RS1Ds, which can record only smaller local events or larger distant ones.
“I was floored by the thoughtfulness and consideration demonstrated throughout the whole project,” Wolin said. “I think this is required reading for any scientist who wants to develop a school outreach program.”
—Rachel Fritts (@rachel_fritts), Science Writer