Perry students learn about earthquake fault in their backyard

Thursday , March 31, 2016 - 12:21 PM

LEIA LARSEN, Standard-Examiner Staff

Perry is pinched right along the Wasatch Fault Zone, which makes it perfectly positioned for students to learn about the ever-changing cycles of rocks.

This school year, fifth and sixth graders at the Promontory School for Expeditionary Learning have worked with Alexis Ault, an assistant professor in geology at Utah State University. Her specialty is geochronology — the science of rock dating. More specifically, she’s interested in earthquakes, including those that happened millions of years ago along the Wasatch Front.

“I feel like part of understanding how the Wasatch Fault has evolved over time, and understanding what it’s doing today, is knowing what the history of earthquakes is in the past,” she said. “As geologists, we always say ‘the past is the key to the present.’”

The Promontory School, a Perry-based charter school, puts an emphasis on field trips and active learning. Ault visited science classes to talk about faults earlier this year, but said she realized the complexity of past earthquakes is best demonstrated on-site at Utah State University’s many labs. So on Tuesday, the science class took a trip to Logan.

Students examined rocks collected along faults with shiny, naturally polished surfaces.

Ault also showed them the university’s powerful scanning electron microscope, or SEM, which allows her to magnify rocks up to 300,000 times and see the tiny crystals forming them.

Those crystals carry signs of past seismic activity. During earthquakes, rocks heat up as they rub along each other. That intense heat changes the crystals’ shape. It also gives fault rocks their glossy iridescence.

“Geochronology, in its essence, is about time — but it’s also about temperature,” Ault said. “The thing that’s powerful about the work we’re doing on the Wasatch Fault — and these kids live right in the shadow of the Wasatch Fault, it’s crazy — is (that) we’re interested in the textures that are evidence of the heat.”

Ault is a principal investigator on a National Science Foundation grant studying tectonics. Her microscopic exploration of fault rocks is a new way of exploring ancient earthquakes in Utah and beyond.

“The Wasatch Fault Zone … right by Brigham City, by Perry and Willard, is riddled with thousands upon thousands of these fault surfaces,” she said. “This is work no one has thought of, in the context of fault surfaces that look like this.”

The Promontory School students also explored the many facets of Utah State’s geology department. They saw rocks melted to lava and pieces of California’s San Andreas Fault under a microscope. They learned about minerals and about isotopes. They held samples of stromatolites — living rocks formed by microbes in the Great Salt Lake.

Dreysen Runjo, a fifth-grader, liked seeing the molten rocks the best. He also liked learning about “the way rocks can be shaped.”

Wesley Reeves, in the sixth grade, liked the SEM.

“I pretty much didn’t know anything about rocks,” he said. “They get shaped from heat and pressure, it depends on what kind of rock it is – sedimentary, metamorphic.”

Several students also noted the importance of learning about past earthquakes to help protect people in the present.

“We can’t know when they’re coming, but we can know how big they’re going to get,” said fifth-grader Lily Kamelamela-Stanton. “There’s a possibility (earthquakes) can happen anywhere.”

In April, Ault will take the students on a hike to take a look at the fault line running through their own backyards.

She said the hands-on learning helps students understand the many ways science is all around them.

“Part of the motivation is I feel passionate in making students excited and engaged at a very young age,” Ault said. “If we can plant a seed in any way, even the tiniest of seeds, about the importance of science and its impact on our every day lives … or even possibility of growing up to be a scientist, that is a positive.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or Follow her on or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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