VEPP: Volcano Monitoring and Interpretation of Real-Time Data: A Project for Non-Science Majors

Mike Johnson Chemistry/Geosciences Dept. Monroe Community College Rochester NY (

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This is an exercise that is in development and has not yet been fully tested in the classroom. Please check back regularly for updates and changes.

An ongoing project for small class size comprised of non-science majors. Students use the VEPP website as a monitoring tool to document and interpret real-time volcanic deformation data at Pu'u 'O'o and determine whether an eruptive event is occurring. They also incorporate past events at Kilauea/Pu'u 'O'o as models.

Full length description:

This project should be started midway into the semester or quarter, continuing until the end of the semester (students must first have enough background in geology/volcanology before they can tackle this project successfully, so lectures on magmatic differentiation, types of volcanism- explosive vs effusive, and targeted activities need to precede the start of the project). Students need to know how to read the data on the VEPP website- if classroom wi-fi is available and most students have laptops, instruction on navigation and interpretation can take place in the classroom; if not, a computer lab may be required for at least one class session. However, a large part of familiarizing students with the website can also be accomplished lecture-style by the instructor logging on in a 'smart' classroom.

Students should be divided into three (or some suitable number of) groups: each group will be responsible for reporting weekly on a specific monitoring technique (tilt, seismic, GPS), retrieving and interpreting their information from VEPP/VALVE website. Additional information including updates, past information and geology may be obtained from the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory website.

Students will report current deformation information each week in a "Monday morning meeting" format- each of the three groups will pass out a brief written summary on the data they are responsible for, and give an oral report with questions from the other two groups to follow each presentation. Team spokespersons will rotate every week. Each group will touch on potential sources of error associated with their particular monitoring technique, and attempt to differentiate between real information and what might be extraneous "noise". Groups should be given a short time to confer in class before they present, but prior outside group meetings will be essential to a successful weekly presentation.

At the end of the three group presentations, the instructor should moderate a general discussion by all in an attempt to have the groups integrate their data (i.e., does one data set support another? Is there disparity? What conclusions can be drawn from this particular week's information, and how does it seem to fit, both short-term and long-term?). Instructor may introduce other information sources, like live webcam photos and/or a discussion of past history, to offer support, or lack of support, for a specific interpretation of data being presented by a team or teams (HVO website is a great resource for this).

As the semester proceeds, each of the groups plot their data on a large graph situated in the front of the class. We'll use both graphical plots and location maps to pinpoint events if they occur. Lectures will incorporate other tools to hopefully enhance and lend credence to the interpretation process- use of geologic observations, gas emissions and other information, the main reference source being the HVO website. Past Kilauea/Pu'u 'O'o events will need to be examined for comparison purposes.

This exercise is meant to simulate some of the tasks that volcanologists undertake in the real world.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals


To learn how to employ various volcano monitoring techniques, integrate data from the available real time VEPP sources, and arrive at a cohesive interpretation of those data. The students should also be able to separate background noise from valid information.

Briefly describe the content/concepts goals for this activity (e.g., those involving pure vs. simple shear, deformation mechanisms, kinematic analysis, accurate description of samples):

Content goals: students will learn to use the VEPP and HVO websites, to define GPS, tilt and seismic data in the context of volcanic monitoring, and to correlate and interpret those data. Students will record their information on a graph, so they'll become familiar with different scales and how to accurately plot data.

concepts goals: The project is intended to be a collaborative effort among multiple teams- concept goals include working as a small team and integrating the team's information with other teams' information. All teams are using real-time to near real-time data. This is a simulation of what volcanologists are doing in the real world. Students will work on individual, team and class levels. For example, an individual on a particular team may be assigned a tilt meter and report data to his team, which has 2 other members reporting on their assigned tilt meters. The team makes a determination on the significance of their data, and the team spokesperson reports to the group. The group then discusses the info, and eventually, after all three teams reported, a final group discussion of data takes place.

Briefly describe the higher order thinking skills goals for this activity (e.g., those involving analysis of data, formulation of hypotheses, synthesis of ideas, critical evaluation of competing models, development of computer or analog models):

Students will learn working in an atmosphere of cooperative effort, working in groups; will give weekly oral presentations in class followed by questions and discussion. After all three presentations, all teams will receive all data sets for that week, "jigsaw" them and attempt a cohesive interpretation. They will employ multiple websites in their endeavors.

Briefly describe any other skills goals for this activity (e.g., those involving writing, operating analytical equipment, searching the WWW, oral presentation, working in groups): speaking in an oral presentation context builds confidence, replicates real world work; team work is also a likely job skill that will be of future value.

Context for Use

This activity is intended for non-majors.
Intended for undergraduate lower division students
Typical Number of Students: 15-20
Typical Number Classes Where Exercise is Used: dedicate one (one hour) class per week over a 6 to 7 week period
The activity will go for approximately half of the semester (second half)
Data accessed both during and outside of class

What is the type of activity (a problem set, classroom activity, lab activity, project, field activity, and/or a writing activity)?

Ongoing project

What is the class type (small intro lecture, large intro lecture, or UD/grad course; disasters, hazards, field course, or intro geology; with or without computers; community college)?

Small intro lecture, non-science majors

Briefly describe the type(s) and level(s) of course in which this activity or assignment could be used (e.g., undergraduate required course in structural geology, introductory physical geology course for non-majors, graduate level seminar on geochemistry):

Intro to volcanology, no prerequisite; also appropriate in an intro geohazards class.

Briefly describe or list the skills and concepts that students must have mastered before beginning the activity:

Students need to have command of basic background information in geology/volcanology; they must know how to navigate through the VEPP website in order to retrieve relevant information for the particular week they are reporting on. In addition, they'll need to be able to navigate through the USGS HVO website.

Briefly describe how the activity is situated in your course (e.g., as a culminating project, as a stand-alone exercise, as part of a sequence of exercises):

My class is an introductory volcanology class which starts with basic principles including magmatic differentiation, different types of volcanoes, and their tectonic settings. This particular exercise counts for one fourth of the student's grade, and is introduced as an ongoing exercise after the students have been taught the skill set needed to accomplish the task (2nd half of semester).

Description and Teaching Materials

Volcanology text (Decker and Decker); select handouts from other volcano texts (J.P. Lipman, also Parfitt); VEPP website, USGS and HVO websites; ongoing graphical plot for all three monitors and a map on which to plot location of past and recent flows and new breakouts should they occur.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Accessing the VEPP Web site ( requires a password, which can be obtained by sending an email with your name, affiliation, and intended use of the site to mpoland "at"

Please describe any helpful examples of this activity, as well as any potential variations on this theme:

For example, one team will report weekly on tilt data (for the previous week). They must be able to differentiate between data of eruptive significance and background noise. They should be able to identify whether a D/I event has occurred, and what it means from an eruptive standpoint.

What tips might you offer to other educators planning to use this activity?

The instructor will need to teach the students how to access, view, and interpret the various monitoring techniques, and how to navigate the websites. This means the project actually starts in earnest at some point a third to halfway into the semester. This exercise may be modified to fit different circumstances: for example, if it's being used in a class of geology majors, much less time needs to be spent getting students up to speed on the basic geologic principles needed, and the project can be started earlier in the semester. In this case, students might be expected to report on the geology as an additional tool in assessing what's going on. Larger classes might be divided into as many as 4 groups, but 5 or more seems like it might be too unwieldy.


Describe briefly how you determine whether students have met the goals of this assignment or activity.
Each team's weekly presentation will be graded by the professor. Clarity and organization of presentation, logical conclusions (or lack of conclusions), and a demonstrable understanding of how the data relate to volcanic processes will be considered. The instructor might also have the students rate each other at the end of the project for their overall performance. I anticipate this project to be 25% of the student's final grade. You may plan to teach it, as I do, in conjunction with lectures on volcanoes and individual student projects doing case study presentations on specific volcanic eruptions. Knowledge of skills and concepts may be evaluated by incorporating questions related to the project on the final exam.

References and Resources

Please list any supporting references or URLs for this activity: (need password)

VEPP: Volcano Monitoring and Interpretation of Real-Time Data: A Project for Non-Science Majors --Discussion  

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