VEPP: Using the VEPP website in an introductory geology course: an investigation of the July 21, 2007 eruption of Pu'u O'o

Geoffrey Cook
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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.

Introductory geology students will use geologic data obtained from the VEPP website (tilt and seismic)to identify and interpret changes during the July 21st, 2007 eruption of Pu'u 'O'o.

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Learning Goals

Briefly describe the content/concepts goalsfor this activity (e.g., those involving pure vs. simple shear, deformation mechanisms, kinematic analysis, accurate description of samples):
  • Students will identify trends in the geologic data.
  • Students will be able to recognize and interpret the dynamic nature of volcanic eruptions.

Briefly describe the higher order thinking skills goalsfor 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 compare and contrast the changes that take place at Pu'u O'o before, during, and after the July 21, 2007 eruption.
  • Students will assess their observations with the goal of making hypotheses based on the geologic data.

Briefly describe any other skills goalsfor this activity (e.g., those involving writing, operating analytical equipment, searching the WWW, oral presentation, working in groups):

  • Students will be able to utilize websites containing real-time (or near real-time) geologic data.
  • Students will produce a written lab report.

Context for Use

This activity is intended for use with both majors and non-majors.
Intended for introductory geology students
Typical Number of Students: 10-200 (in larger classes it may make sense for the students to work in groups)
Typical Number Classes Where Exercise is Used: 2- Introductory geology
The activity will run during a single 3 hour lab session
Data accessed during class

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

This activity is designed specifically as a laboratory exercise, but it could be adapted to run over several 50-minute lecture meetings as well.

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)?

A wide range of class sizes (small through large) can be accommodated with this exercise. However, larger numbers of students (50+) in an individual lab or lecture setting may require TA or instructor assistance (i.e. more helpers to assist students) for a more effective learning experience.

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):

Introductory geology for either majors or non-majors

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

Students must have some familiarity with working on a computer. If this is a problem, splitting students into small groups may alleviate the issue as the more computer-savvy individuals can take the lead in working with the VEPP website. Those with less experience can observe, and when the data is presented, they will then take on an equal role in observing and interpreting. A corollary of this exercise is that students may learn computer skills simply by working with the VEPP 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):

The activity is a stand-alone exercise designed to run during a single lab period

Description and Teaching Materials

The VEPP website. Access to at least one computer/laptop per group. Alternately, a computer lab may also be used if it is available. During the introduction portion of the exercise, the instructor may wish to bring in ancillary instructional materials such as maps, photos, PowerPoint presentations highlighting local geology and monitoring techniques, etc..

Full length description:

This exercise is designed primarily for an introductory physical geology course (suitable for both majors and non-majors) and is best accomplished over the course of a single laboratory section (2-3 hours). In this exercise, students will examine the July 21, 2007 eruption of Pu'u O'o using information from the VEPP website. Two sources of data will be utilized: tilt and seismic. The overall goal is to provide students from a wide variety of backgrounds with an opportunity to work with real geologic data. Additionally, students will have the opportunity to sharpen their observational skills and learn more about the scientific method.

During the first third of the session, the students will be introduced to basic volcano monitoring techniques, focusing mainly on tilt and seismic data collection. In addition they will be provided with general background information about the geology of Hawai'i and the July 21st eruption. A concise narrative of the eruption is conveniently found in the history tab on the VEPP website, and also on the HVO website ( Students may be encouraged to visit the VEPP and HVO websites prior to lab in order to provide a pre-lab introduction.

In the second third of the exercise, the students will be introduced to the VEPP website and will work with the VALVE interface to acquire the necessary data. This is best accomplished as a group, with the instructor (who has previously made themselves proficient with the VEPP website and VALVE interface) leading students through the program step by step to generate usable data and plots. The July 21st, 2007 eruption at Pu'u 'O'o is suggested for use. The students will examine the time period between July 17-24 so they are able to analyze changes occurring on the volcano before, during, and after the eruption. However, instructors are free to delineate any time series that they may desire or feel is valuable.

In this exercise, several types of data and plots will be useful. Tilt is a measure of deformation on the volcano, which is typically correlated with moving magmas. As the magma chamber beneath the volcano fills, the edifice (structure) expands or inflates causing instruments to record changes in the morphology of the volcano. Likewise, as magmas move (or erupt!) the volcanic edifice may deflate or deform causing new changes in morphology. For the tilt data, three stations (POO, POC, and POS) are available at Pu'u 'O'o. At each station, there is an option to view either a time-series graph of deformation or a map showing a deformation vector. An example of each type of plot is shown below:

Tilt at POC

Tilt vectors at POC

Seismic data is an indicator of activity in the volcano due to events such as earthquakes or magma movement. Rather than track specific seismic events, RSAM plots indicate more general, overall seismic activity. By itself, it may not be useful for "diagnosing" activity at the volcano. However, it is very useful when used in conjunction with other types of data (such as tilt). For the seismic (RSAM) data, a time series graph is the preferred option for data presentation. An example of this is shown below:

RSAM for July-14-28

In the final portion of the exercise, students will break into small groups of 3-4 to examine the derived graphs and times series data. The main objective is for students to identify and analyze any trends in both data sets before, during, and after the eruption. Students will be asked to compare and contrast both data sets. In order to facilitate the process, the instructor should direct the students to not only look for trends or patterns, but also to think creatively about what the trends might mean for activity on the volcano (inflation, deflation, extrusion of magma, etc.).

In the final portion of the session, the individual groups will reconvene as a class to discuss and share findings. The instructor(s) should keep the conversation on topic, as it is envisioned that an introductory class may have a tendency to stray off topic.

The assessment will take the form of a single homework assignment in which students will individually summarize their observations through a series of guided questions (more details in the assessment section below). This short but concise write-up will serve as a report of observations but will also provide students with the opportunity to make interpretations about physical processes that may or may not be associated with the July 21st episode.

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:

One variation would be to alter the time-series around the July 21, 2007 eruption. Shorter or longer time-series may yield different patterns in the data that may or may not be interesting to the students.

Alternately, a different eruptive episode could be used. The July 21st eruption was chosen as an interesting recent example of volcanism at Kilauea, but it is certainly possible to highlight other events. The point of this exercise is not to highlight any specific eruptive event. Rather, it is to expose students to working with real volcanic data and to sharpen their observation skills by looking at geologic changes that occur over the course of an eruption.

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

First and foremost- it is an imperative that the instructor becomes familiar with the VEPP website and the VALVE3 interface. The ideal scenario is for the instructor to guide the students through the VEPP website in order to facilitate the process during the lab period.

Additionally, it may be helpful to have more than one TA or instructor to circulate around the lab to help the individual groups with their discussion and interpretation. In particular, it is important to keep the students on-task (always a challenge)


Describe briefly how you determine whether students have met the goals of this assignment or activity.

Students will individually present their findings in a short (1 page) lab writeup. In this assignment, they will answer the following questions:

- What types of changes are evident in the tilt data before, immediately during, and after the July 21st eruption?
- What types of changes are evident in the seismic (RSAM) data before, during, and after the July 21st eruption?
- Based on your newly-acquired volcano knowledge, what might these changes represent with respect to activity on the volcano?

Obviously, at this level students will have a fairly rudimentary knowledge of volcanoes and monitoring techniques. Consequently, they will be assessed based on two criteria: first, did they make a reasonable attempt at observing trends in the data; second, did they make a reasonable attempt at forming hypotheses about what is happening on the volcano across the given time-scale.

Certainly, opinions will vary about what is "reasonable" from instructor to instructor. My idea of reasonable is for the students make a genuine effort to identify several trends in the data (for example, "there was an increase in tilt of xx microradians between July 14 and July 21) and then to make a best guess about what those trends might mean. For example, a student might state that "the increase in tilt indicates that the volcano is expanding before the eruption" and that "after the eruption the decrease in tilt suggests that the magma chamber has been drawn down or emptied somewhat". It is up to the instructor to generate an acceptable rubric for grading.

References and Resources

Please list any supporting references or URLs for this activity:

The HVO website:

The USGS volcano hazards site:

The Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program:

VEPP: Using the VEPP website in an introductory geology course: an investigation of the July 21, 2007 eruption of Pu'u O'o --Discussion  

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