Building Quake-Resistant Structures in the Classroom

Every day somewhere on our planet, there is an earthquake, but only the destructive ones in populated areas grab our attention. On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti. The next day the headline from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was Haiti Devastated by Massive Earthquake. The article tells how the earthquake, with its epicenter just outside of the country’s capital of Port-au-Prince, affected an estimated three million people.

A few months later, an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.9 occurred in China’s Qinghai Province on April 13, 2010. An early report from the New York Times was headlined Earthquake Kills Dozens in Northwest China. Later reports would reveal that this earthquake left many buildings destroyed, over 2,000 individuals dead, and even more seriously injured. Other notable earthquakes include the 2010 earthquake in Chile and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan.

Seeing and reading about the aftermath of earthquakes can lead students to believe that nothing can be done to prevent or lessen the destruction and injury. To help students gain an appreciation of the technology currently available, it is important to make students aware of the “before earthquake scene.”

Civil engineers study the effects of earthquakes on foundations and soils. Their research often provides evidence that helps them design earthquake resistant structures. The structures are often able to resist loads that are superimposed on them through earthquake shaking. This is because the structures bend and sway with the motion of an earthquake, or are isolated from the movement by sliders. Watch the Science 360 video “Dissecting an Earthquake”  to learn more about the engineers’ work.

Activity

A great way to introduce students to earthquake-resistant buildings is to have them build their own structures. The following lesson takes approximately two to three days for students to complete in the classroom. The lesson brings in many concepts of the History and Nature of Science standard of the National Science Education Standards.

Note: Prior to this activity, students should have learned about plate tectonics, earthquakes, the Mercalli Scale and the Richter Scale.

In this lesson, students are the civil engineers. By building their own structure with toothpicks and marshmallows, students will learn how engineers construct buildings to withstand damage from earthquakes. Students will test their buildings on an earthquake simulation (a pan of gelatin). They will then re-engineer the structure based on its performance.

To introduce the concept of earthquake-resistant buildings, watch this clip of researchers testing a three-story structure.

After watching the video, you should explain to students that they will make models of buildings and conduct an experiment to test how well their structures stand up under the stress of an earthquake.

The materials needed for this lesson are items that you can find in any grocery or convenience store. You will need toothpicks, marshmallows (miniature), gelatin, and paper to sketch drawings on.

Safety Note: Tell students they should never put anything in their mouths in a science lab. The marshmallows and gelatin are not for eating.

Distribute 30 toothpicks and 30 marshmallows to each student. Explain that engineers have limited resources when building structures. Each structure should be at least two toothpick levels high, buildings must contain at least one triangle, and buildings must contain at least one square.

Do not give as many constraints to IEP or ELL students. You may also want to illustrate how to make cubes and triangles using toothpicks and marshmallows. Show them how to break a toothpick approximately in half. Explain to the students that cubes and triangles may be stacked to make towers. The towers can have small or large “footprints” or bases.

When students have built their structures, place the structures on the pans of gelatin and shake the gelatin to simulate an earthquake. Students should take notes about how their building “responds” during an earthquake. While shaking the gelatin, you may want to ask students these questions: What type of waves are being simulated? How do you know this?

After students have tested their structures, in the next class period they should redesign and rebuild them and test them again. Students should focus on the following questions when redesigning their building: What can they do to make it stronger? Did it topple? Should they make the base bigger? Make the structure taller or shorter?

Students can design and rebuild as many times as the class period allows.

Additional Resources and Ideas

Have students pretend that they are engineers for a civil engineering company. Instruct them to create a flyer or write a letter to convince their company to let them design a better building or structure. (Students should also describe the risks of the area and give background information.) For gifted students, have them do this for a building in the area. This will engage the students and make them think critically about something within their community.

Have your students monitor quake activity weekly by checking the list maintained on the U.S. Geological Survey site. This web site lists the latest earthquakes magnitude 5.0 and greater in the world. The web site also provides a link to a map for each quake location.

The Middle School Portal 2 (MSP2) project has a digital library of resources focused on middle school math and science. You can search the MSP2 collection to find many excellent resources. Here are three to get you started:

Plate Tectonics
This publication offers a sampling of activities and animations to support students as they piece together the plate tectonics puzzle. In some activities, students examine different sources of evidence to try to figure out where and how Earth has changed. They will experience those cherished “aha!” moments when natural phenomena start to make sense. Also included in this publication are excellent reading resources to fill the gaps in students’ and teachers’ understanding of plate tectonics.

Observe Video Taken During an Earthquake
These videos were created for middle and high school students and were taken by security cameras during an earthquake near Seattle, Washington. Each clip shows a view of a different location either within or outside a building. Because the quake originated 30-35 miles beneath the earth’s surface, it caused minimal damage despite having a magnitude of 6.8. Time stamps in the lower left corner of each video clip allow students to determine when shaking started and ended at each location. Students are able to use control buttons to play, pause, and move forward and backward through the clips.

Seismic Waves
An instructional tutorial introduces students to seismic waves caused by earthquakes. Students answer questions as they move through the tutorial and investigate how P and S waves travel through layers of the earth. In one activity, students can produce and view wave motion in a chain of particles. A second activity introduces Love and Rayleigh waves. In a third activity, students study P and S waves by activating four seismographs, watching the resulting P and S waves, and answering interactive questions. Five web sites about waves, seismic action, and earthquakes are included.

We Want Your Feedback

We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.

This post was originally written by Brittany Wall and published June 4, 2010 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 3/6/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

Granite Helps Scientists Piece Together Rodinia

If you’ve taught plate tectonics at the middle school level, you’re probably quite familiar with the supercontinent Pangaea. But did you know that Pangaea was not the only supercontinent in earth’s history – just the last to date? Millions of years before Pangaea, another supercontinent known as Rodinia united all of earth’s landmass in an unusual configuration. While we tend to think of Pangaea as the “starting point,” earth’s land and ocean basins have been continually shaped throughout geologic time through a supercontinent cycle.

While Pangaea certainly gets more press, Rodinia was the star of an article in the July 11, 2008 edition of Science. As summarized in a National Science Foundation News release, John Goodge’s team was collecting geologic specimens in the Transantarctic Mountains when they discovered a single granite boulder atop Nimrod Glacier.

Andrew Barth (L) and Devon Brecke (R), collecting glacial moraine samples in the Miller Range of the Transantarctic Mountains. Photo courtesy of John Goodge, University of Minnesota.

Subsequent chemical and isotopic tests indicated that the boulder was strikingly similar to a belt of igneous rock running through the southwestern United States. These similar chemical and isotopic signatures provided support for the SWEAT (southwest United States East Antarctica) hypothesis, which states that East Antarctica was connected to the southwestern United States approximately one billion years ago, as part of the global supercontinent Rodinia.

The supercontinent Rodinia as it began to break up approximately 750 million years ago.

At the heart of Rodinia was Laurentia, or the precursor to most of North America. Debate exists, however, on whether East Antarctica, Australia, Siberia, or South China fit with the western margin of Laurentia. This geologic discovery provides three lines of evidence in support of an East Antarctica – Laurentia connection.

Researchers theorize that about 600-800 million years ago, a portion of Rodinia broke away, gradually drifting southward to become eastern Antarctica and Australia. This movement just predates the Cambrian explosion, a rapid diversification of life and sudden appearance of complex organisms. Goodge explains that “there are ideas developing about these connections between the geo-tectonic world on the one hand and biology on the other.” It is possible that the shifting and colliding of continents, erosion, and influx of minerals and chemicals into the ocean may have provided nutrients to support a growing diversity of organisms.

Connecting to the National Science Education Standards

As with a discussion of Pangaea or plate tectonics in general, this article provides an opportunity to meet the Earth and Space Science standard’s various concepts. According to the National Science Education Standards, “The idea of systems provides a framework in which students can investigate the four major interacting components of the earth system – geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and the biosphere. In this holistic approach to studying the planet, physical, chemical, and biological processes act within and among the four components on a wide range of time scales to change continuously earth’s crust, oceans, atmosphere, and living organisms.” The holistic approach described in the NSES is reflected in this study’s use of geologic evidence to explain an important biological phenomenon.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

Rather than spark a new lesson, this current event provides an opportunity to revisit a familiar unit on plate tectonics, geologic time, and rocks and minerals. Most teachers include a discussion of Alfred Wegner and the evidence for his theory of plate tectonics, including similar fossilized plants and reptiles found in South America and Africa.

After students understand how Wegner used geologic and fossil evidence to reconstruct Pangaea, present the evidence from this most recent discovery. Ask them to explain how the same type of granite could be found in eastern Antarctica and the southwest United States. Once students conclude that the two continents must have been connected, re-examine a diagram of Pangaea, which shows an African-Antarctic connection, not a North America-Antarctic one. How, then, could these two places have similar rocks?

A reconstruction of the supercontinent Pangaea. Image courtesy of Kieff via Wikimedia.

Referring to geologic time may help at this point. Using a modified time scale, remind students that Pangaea existed approximately 200 million years ago, while earth is approximately 4.6 billion years old. What did earth’s surface look like before Pangaea? Lead students to the conclusion that other supercontinents, like Rodinia, existed well before Pangaea. Introduce the concept of the supercontinent cycle.

This type of discussion naturally progresses to the mechanics and processes driving the cycle: plate movement. The following resources from the Middle School Portal can help you teach about earth’s interior and plate tectonics. It may also be helpful to brush up on concepts related to geologic time, as these processes span millions of years.

Geologic Time: Eons, Eras, and Epochs

Plate Tectonics: Moving Middle School Science

Once students understand plate interactions (rifting, subduction, sea-floor spreading), take a global view. Using a world map, plot the locations of plate divergence and convergence. Challenge students to predict what the next supercontinent will look like. For example, current plate movement indicates that as the Atlantic Ocean basin grows, the Pacific Ocean basin is shrinking. In the future, western North America may be connected to Asia in the earth’s latest supercontinent. This story from NPR, Amasia: The Next Supercontinent?, tells the possible story.

Introducing Rodinia as part of a greater supercontinent cycle presents plate tectonics as a driving force in a long-term pattern of constructive and destructive forces. It provides another opportunity for students to consider the cyclic change: a fundamental principle in science.

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. This post was originally written by Jessica Fries-Gaither and published July 24, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 2/8/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

Newest Issue of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle Highlights the Science of Climate Study

Scientists recording data on Sperry Glacier. Photo courtesy of glaciernps, Flickr.

The just-published issue of the free, online magazine Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle gives K-5 school teachers a unique opportunity to introduce the science behind weather and climate change to young students with engaging lessons and proven reading strategies.

Each issue of the magazine takes its theme from one of the widely accepted principles of the climate sciences. The theme of the September 2011 issue is “We Study Earth’s Climate.”

Designed to integrate science and literacy instruction for educators in K- grade 5 classrooms, this and earlier issues provide background articles on the related science and literacy topics and their connections to the elementary curriculum. Science and literacy lessons to use in the classroom become a part of unit plans for grades K-2 and 3-5 and are aligned with the national standards for science education and English language arts.

An original story, titled  How Do We Study Climate?, gives young listeners and readers chances to use their comprehension skills on informational text. The story is available at two reading levels and in three different formats.  Selected children’s books on climate and weather are highlighted in a bookshelf feature.

Two articles are devoted to teaching young people to evaluate information from web sites and to use video clips from agencies that work with weather satellites, balloons, and buoys to learn about data collection.

Readers are welcome to add their ideas and suggestions on articles by leaving comments. They can also easily share and bookmark content by using the embedded AddThis buttons.

Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and produced on the campus of The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio.  All past issues of the magazine are available from the homepage of the magazine.

Kimberly Lightle, director of digital libraries in OSU’s College of Education and Human Ecology, School of Teaching and Learning is the principal investigator of the project as well as a contributing writer. Jessica Fries-Gaither is the project director of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle as well as the award-winning sister publication, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears.


We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post
updated 12/07/2011.

Citizen Science Project: How Much Rain Fell in Your Backyard?

The Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network (CoCoRaHS) is a network of volunteers working together to measure precipitation across the nation. Volunteers use high quality rain gauges and even “hail pads” to study hail storms. Volunteers post their daily observations on the CoCoRaHS web site. Observations are immediately available on maps and reports for the public to view. Hope you will get your classroom or family involved!

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 4/18/2012.

Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: A Middle School Perspective

Current events provide us with unique learning opportunities – ones that we need to take advantage of even if the consequences of that event are tragic. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is one such event. Not that it is the first oil spill that has had an impact on U.S. shores but it is by far the worst.

The last oil spill that most people can remember is the Exxon Valdez spill. It’s hard to believe that the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened in 1989 – 21 years ago. At the time, it seemed like we couldn’t ever have a worse spill. It was a watershed moment in U.S. environmental history and changed the way we consider and deal with oil and chemical spills in this country. On the 20th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill a movie, Hindsight and Foresight: 20 Years After the Exxon Valdez Spill, was released. The movie reviews the initial stages of the oil spill, shows how it changed U.S. laws and regulations, and identifies challenges for the future as it asks the questions: What does the twentieth anniversary of the spill mean, and what have we learned? Maybe not a lot, unfortunately.

The following resources provide amazing and tragic images of the spill, a chemistry perspective, a visual perspective (just how big is the spill compared to your town), and a podcast and lessons and resources collected by the Ohio Resource Center.

Gulf Oil Spill Could Eclipse Exxon Valdez Disaster
Slide show from NPR. An oil spill that threatened to eclipse even the Exxon Valdez disaster spread out of control and drifted inexorably toward the Gulf Coast as fishermen rushed to scoop up shrimp and crews spread floating barriers around marshes.

C&EN Special Issue: Disaster in the Gulf
Chemical & Engineering News, the magazine that goes to all members of the American Chemical Society, has devoted a special issue to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The articles are mostly available to anyone, but a few of them are only available to ACS members. They provide important scientific background for the oil spill, much of it useful for classroom discussions.

How Big Is the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill?
See exactly where the oil spill is located in the Gulf of Mexico, and compare the size of the spill to the size of a city you are familiar with.

Oil Spills
The page has a number of visualizations and videos of the Deep Water Horizon incident as well as the Exxon Valdez along with general models of oil spills and software for modeling them. There are also teaching activities and materials for talking about these events in the classroom as well as a list of references that may be of use in the classroom. The content is targeted at undergraduate geoscience classrooms but if you are looking for a deeper understanding of what is happening this is a great place to go.

The Science of Oil Spills – Grades 6-8
The Ohio Resource Center has pulled together resources that support teaching and learning of multiple aspects of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Coast oil spill. You’ll find a 10 minute podcast where Terry Shiverdecker and Jessica Fries-Gaither discuss how middle school teachers can use an Earth science systems approach to incorporate oil spill activities into their instruction as well as lessons, activities, and information that focus on everything from environmental aspects to the dispersants that are being used. Resources for K-2, 3-5, and 9-12 are also provided.

Connect with colleagues and talk about what you are doing in your middle school science classroom at the Middle School Portal 2: Math and Science Pathways (MSP2) social network – http://msteacher2.org.


We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 12/09/2011.