Over 111,700 were in attendance this Saturday to watch the University of Michigan football team steamroll Penn State. Ben van der Pluijm, professor of Geology, is interested in a different kind of waves made at the Big House this year, though: he’s leading a new initiative called the Michigan Shake Project, recording and analyzing the seismic activity that results from crowd response at Michigan football games.

In late August, van der Pluijm set up a seismometer near the Big House stadium in order to record the ground-motion created by people watching the game. 

“The bottom line was, I wanted something to show people that the Earth just shakes from all kinds of interactions,” van der Pluijm said. “All kinds of activity makes the Earth shake.”

Van der Pluijm explained he was in search of an example that would hit closer to home with his introductory geology class, seeing as there are few natural disasters like volcanoes, landslides or earthquakes in the Midwest. “I was trying to find a way to connect the inherent shaking of the Earth’s surface to your experience and my experience,” he said.

Van der Pluijm installed a small machine called a Raspberry Pi computer in the stadium. He said his only requirements were that it needed to be able to plug into the Internet and set up on a concrete floor.

“Then it sits there and does its thing,” he said. “In fact, it probably does its thing right now.”

Van der Pluijm’s machine is not the only seismometer constantly running. These machines are scattered across the world and pick up information on seismic activity in real time. Van der Pluihm explained scientists can use this information and “invert that signal to understand what the shaking source is.”

This research influences architectural decisions made in the construction of buildings to increase safety. Still, van der Pluijm said he wanted students to see these grave matters in a lighter context, like a Michigan football game.

“I just picked the setting that maybe sort of speaks more to the imagination,” van der Pluijm said.

Van der Pluijm’s primary goal is to find innovative ways students can connect to concepts in geology. He even points out that students carry around their own personal seismometers with them every day: their phones.

Any layperson is able to record seismic waves. It is not the existence of this research that makes the Michigan Shake Project unique. Instead, it is the Big House. As the largest stadium in the country, it provides an unmatched arena for examining crowd response seismic activity.

“Very few people have done this kind of project because simply they haven’t thought about it or they don’t have the access that we do here,” he said.

Van der Pluijm said he sends his student, LSA freshman Sahil Tolia, into the field as an “on-site spotter” every home game to record the timing of events such as crowd reactions or cheers led by the band.

“I try to get a variety of events,” Tolia said.

Tolia believes his participation in the project has had an impact on his understanding of geology.

“More than anything, I think it is just interesting to see how a group of over 100,000 people can create small earthquakes in a localized area,” Tolia said.

Ford senior Zoha Qureshi said she feels like the large crowd at the Big House generates enough energy to feel as if seismic activity is occurring.

“Sometimes the student section is so loud, it was like this on Saturday, and so electric that it really does kind of feel like an earthquake,” she said.

But beyond its implication on the research of seismic waves, the Michigan Shake Project is a fun and easy way to get people interested in and understanding science. That was van der Pluijm’s goal all along.

“Enthusiasm of people is a good thing to measure,” van der Pluijm said. “This is a happiness meter.”

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