Alaska and Puerto Rico High School Students Connect through Seismology
Gabriel Low

One month after his team received an award for creating the best seismic alarm system at the 2023 Shake Challenge Symposium in Fairbanks, Alaska, 15-year-old Merlin Matcian from Chevak, Alaska found himself installing a seismograph in “La Placita” coffee shop in Yauco, Puerto Rico. Only a few days later, he would present his team’s seismic alert system at the Seismological Society of America annual meeting and meet Puerto Rico’s celebrity meteorologist, Ada Monzon.

In April, 2023, Teaching Through Technology (T3) Alaska and the Alaska Earthquake Center led a group of eight rural Alaskan high school students to Puerto Rico for a weeklong trip with the objective of fostering student leadership, establishing cross-cultural connections, and understanding the similar challenges being faced by communities in two isolated and resilient regions of the U.S.—Alaska and Puerto Rico.

These eight "T3 Alaska Ambassadors" were chosen for their active involvement and leadership in their local T3 programs and in at least one of T3’s extracurricular clubs. Four students came from the seismology-focused Shake Ambassador Club. This experience was an opportunity to apply their learning beyond the classroom and connect with their peers in Puerto Rico.

The majority of the trip was spent in the southwestern region of the island, an area that has been severely affected by the 2019–2020 earthquake swarm. The students visited the hard-hit communities of Guanica and Yauco, as well as the Puerto Rican Seismic Network in Mayaguez (Fig 2), an area that experienced more than 700 earthquakes above magnitude 3 in 2022 alone. Due to how shallow the earthquakes in this region are, even a magnitude 3 quake can cause significant localized shaking in communities.

The connection between the Alaska and Puerto Rico students was forged through shared experiences in the T3 programs, using technology to address community needs: Students from both regions have participated in seismology projects that involved creating earthquake alarms using small, easily installed Raspberry Shake seismometers.

At the Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico (in San Germán), Alaskan students took the spotlight at a regional STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) event, where they presented about their communities, their T3 program activities, and their experiences in Puerto Rico. They taught their Puerto Rican counterparts tech skills in programming and drones, and shared Native Youth Olympic sports and Alaska Native dance. In return, Puerto Rican students shared Bomba, a traditional drumming dance and song, and other popular Latin dances like Salsa and Bachata.

The trip culminated in two presentations by the T3 Alaska Ambassadors at major venues, with the goal of presenting on their seismology-related activities with the Shake Ambassador club in Alaska and an overview of their experiences in Puerto Rico. The first was a large public earthquake and tsunami education event hosted by EcoExploratorio: Museo de Ciencias de Puerto Rico. The students presented to over a hundred people, and later joined celebrity meteorologist Ada Monzon in person for her Facebook Live broadcast. Later that day, they presented on their experience at their first scientific conference—the Seismological Society of America (SSA) annual meeting, which annually draws about 800 scientists who present their latest earthquake research.

The trip was an empowering experience for the Alaskan and Puerto Rican students alike. It set the stage for building a sister T3 Seismology program in Puerto Rico, and for Puerto Rican students to visit Alaska for the 2024 SSA meeting in Anchorage. The experience was truly transformative for all students involved, enhancing their academic understanding, leadership skills, and cultural awareness. The Alaska–Puerto Rico connection will continue to grow and inspire, driven by the shared goal of engaging local youth in solving real-world problems affecting their unique communities. 

Eight high school students standing in front of tropical foliage and tree.
T3 Alaska Ambassadors in San German, Puerto Rico. Back row (right to left): Nikolai Bardin-Siekawitch and Spencer Petticrew (Wrangell), George Gregory (Bethel), Kenyon Southall (Brevig Mission). Front row: Sydney Lincoln and Dahrlene Laroza (Bethel), Merlin Matchian (Chevak), and Kelly Tocktoo (Brevig Mission)
Woman gesturing to seismology station outside in front of student group.
Elizabeth Vanacore, Seismologist at Puerto Rico Seismic Network, shows students a broadband seismic monitoring station in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.
High school student jumping to kick ball suspended from ceiling while other students watch.
Kenyon demonstrates one foot high kick, a Native Youth Olympics event, to students in San Germán.
Students and instructors pose in front of screen displaying seismogram in coffee shop.
Kenyon and Merlin (center) pose with the live seismogram display they installed at “La Placita” coffee shop, in the town of Yauco. It will help tourists and visitors understand more about the seismic activity the region experiences. Yauco made a Facebook post about it.
Students on podium presenting video slideshow.
Students present at the Seismological Society of America conference.