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.

Amazing New Collection of Hands-on, Interactive Resources

The Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, has launched an online collection of hands-on, interactive resources to help informal educators in nonclassroom settings, such as museums and science centers, engage school-age children in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology learning. The web site is called howtosmile.org.

The web site provides both an enhanced faceted and a visual search capability; list-making features that provide a public or private online space to collect favorite activities and add teaching tips and ideas on how to use an activity; user-contributed videos, and other creative community functions that encourage users to rate and comment on activities. Some activities are available in Spanish. Special activity collections target those with limited mobility and individuals who are vision impaired. Built using open source tools, howtosmile.org also includes an open infrastructure to allow institutions to contribute links to useful activities and a free widget to embed howtosmile.org search results on any web page.

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 4/12/2012.

Math Competitions: Go, Team!

If you want to encourage your middle school students to” be the best they can be,” here are two competitions for you to consider.  Both are national and aimed at promoting high achievement through regular math meetings.  At least one person on staff will have to head the program, teach the high standard mathematics required on the tests, hold practice contests, and generally push, encourage, and applaud.

MATHCOUNTS is a national competition developed for U.S. middle school students. Its program promotes mathematics achievement through grassroots involvement in every U.S. state and territory. You will find here all the information on how to register and how to prepare your students for the yearly competitions held throughout the country.

Math Olympiads for Elementary and Middle Schools
Created for grades 4-6 and 6-8, this program aims to enhance students’ problem-solving skills. I especially like the two grade ranges. Math clubs meet weekly for an hour, when students explore a topic or strategy in depth, or practice for the contests. All information on how to structure the clubs and prepare students is included here. 

Finally, a third contest, not strictly mathematical, but you and a science teacher might find it challenging for your students who like to work “hands-on.” The West Point Bridge Design Contest is a challenge for U.S. students age 13 through grade 12. The purpose of the contest is to provide middle school and high school students with a realistic, engaging introduction to engineering. They can learn about how engineers use the computer as a problem-solving tool, about truss bridges and how they work, about engineering through a realistic, hands-on problem-solving experience, and about the engineering design process. Students design a truss bridge using the award-winning West Point Bridge Designer software (absolutely free!). At the site, you can register for this year’s competition and also learn how to set up a local bridge design contest.

Good luck to your team!!!

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.

Exploring Careers in Mathematics

Even though the potential connection between today’s math classroom and the jobs of the future is frequently cited in speeches, reports, and news headlines, busy middle school students may not be paying attention. Here are online resources that can help you make the connection more relevant, and a lot more engaging, to preteens. In some cases, the connection appears in the words of young people who recognize that math and science were the keys to jobs they love.

BLS Career Information
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has adapted career information from its Occupational Outlook Handbook on a web site just for students in grades 4-8. By clicking on a job characteristic—building and fixing things, managing money, helping people—or a subject area–math, social studies, science—the student is taken to a page with five or six occupations and links to related jobs. On the page titled “If you’re good at math, then look at these possible careers,” the jobs listed are statistician, electrical engineer, surveyor, physicist, cost estimator, and actuary.

Role Model Project for Girls: Professional Women’s Careers
Computer professionals created this web site at which women share descriptions of their work and the paths that led them there. Clicking on a career will take students randomly to a contributor’s brief statement. Not all contributors mention math or science, but many do. A project engineer advises: “Take as much math and science as possible even if you aren’t sure what you want to do after high school. That is the best way to keep all of your options open while you explore various career options.”

The Fun Works…for Careers You Never Knew Existed.
This site funded by the National Science Foundation is designed for students in grades 6-9 and focuses on science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. Students can take a quiz on their interests and strengths to help pinpoint career areas. Or they can go directly to math careers, where they’ll find more than 20 occupations. A teacher’s page lists resources for classroom activities.

Discover Engineering.org
At this web site designed for young people, engineers offer a menu of career explorations, including contests, games, activities from the PBS shows Cyberchase and Zoom, and biographies of engineers who are just two to five years out of school.


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 4/19/2012.

Writing to Communicate in Science

Communication is a science process skill found within the Science as Inquiry section of the National Science Education Standards. The resources here point to methods and references science teachers can use to assist students in continual honing of this important skill.

Writing with Scientists
In this workshop students will use their own notes and research to write and publish a report online. The workshop will be most helpful if students have completed research on a topic.

14 Writing Strategies
This article from the December 2006 issue of Science Scope enumerates strategies that will encourage critical thinking and provide purposeful writing practice. NSTA members can download the article at no charge; nonmembers must pay $0.99.

Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides
This resource comes from a site intended for college students, Writing Guidelines for Engineering and Science Students. However, because it focuses on PowerPoint presentations it is useful to students and teachers at all levels.

How to… Write to Learn Science
This book, available from NSTA, focuses on tapping students’ creativity, allowing them to express science concepts in their own words. Also offered are options for managing writing evaluations and a section on portfolio assessment. (NSTA members receive a reduced price.)


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 4/19/2012.