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.


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

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.

Celebrate Women’s History Month with STEM Stories

The STEM Stories website features a growing collection of digital resources that highlight the lives and work of individuals involved in STEM fields (mainly women). It combines compelling personal stories and multimedia to interest intermediate and middle school students in STEM subjects and careers.

From the In the Spotlight menu, you’ll meet 10 present-day women who are featured in depth, with interviews, photo albums and more.  They include dolphin communication researcher Diana Reiss, atmospheric chemist Susan Solomon, biologist and astronaut Millie Hughes-Fulford, and robotics engineer Heather Knight. (Heather helped work on the Rube Goldberg machine sequence for the OK-Go music video This Too Shall Pass).  On the Clips tab, the database includes short videos that introduce individuals working in varied STEM careers.  The Profiles tab lets you search biographies about women working in STEM fields throughout history.  Some include photo albums, such as Mary Pennington, Rachel Carson, and Virginia Apgar. (Tip:  double-click on images to see a larger view).

The project team, headed by Lois McLean and Rick Tessman (McLean Media) created STEM Stories with girls in mind, drawing on design ideas from an after-school club for at-risk middle and high school girls. In a 2010 pilot, more than 200 students (Grades 4–7) in Nevada County, California, used the site in classroom activities. In one school, fourth- and seventh-grade students worked in pairs to create pop-up books based on featured individuals. Survey results found no major differences between the responses of boys and girls. In fact, teachers reported that students did not even comment on or question the site’s emphasis on women. And, although the website focuses on personal stories, most students also reported learning something new about science and engineering.

STEM Stories was funded through a grant from the NSF’s Research on Gender in Science in Engineering Program (#HRD-0734004). New content is being added every month, including more current and historical photos, profiles, videos, and interactives.

To introduce your students to the STEM Stories site, try these activities:

STEM Stories Treasure Hunt

STEM Stories Crossword Puzzle

STEM Stories Lesson Ideas

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 Post updated 4/19/2012.

The Science of Sports II

Looking for “sporty” ways to teach your students about science? Here are some resources from the Middle School Portal 2 Digital Library. You can do your own searches at MSP2 Collection of Resources.

Science of NFL Football
In America, the autumn season means two things–back to school and back to football. To celebrate both events, NBC News’ educational arm, NBC Learn, teamed up with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Football League (NFL) to release the “Science of NFL Football”–an informative 10-part video series that explores the science behind America’s most beloved sport. Made especially for students and teachers as they head back to the classroom, these videos are aligned to lesson plans and national state education standards. Lessons plans for middle school students that accompany each video can be found at

For each segment in the series, an NSF-supported scientist explains the selected scientific principle, while NFL athletes describe how these principles apply to their respective positions. Series scientists supported by NSF are: University of Florida aerospace engineer Tony Schmitz, Clemson University mechanical engineer John Ziegert, University of Maryland physicist Sylvester “Jim” Gates and Bryn Mawr College mathematician Rhonda Hughes. Also participating in the series are two scientists from the University of Connecticut, kinesiologist Douglas Casa and nutritionist Nancy Rodriguez. Current players and retirees who participated in the video series include:

Former NFL Players:
* Orlando Pace, Tackle
* Hardy Nickerson, Linebacker
* Antonio Freeman, Wide Receiver
* Joey Harrington, Quarterback
* Marshall Faulk, Running Back
* Craig Hentrich, Punter
* Morten Andersen, Place Kicker
* Ryan Kuehl, Long Snapper

Current NFL Players:
* Hines Ward, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
* Antwaan Randle El, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers
* Scott Paxson, Nose Tackle, Pittsburgh Steelers
* Patrick Cobbs, Running Back, Miami Dolphins
* Yeremiah Bell, Safety, Miami Dolphins
* Jake Long, Tackle, Miami Dolphins
* Dan Carpenter, Place Kicker, Miami Dolphins
* Lousaka Polite, Running Back, Miami Dolphins

The Science of Speed
The Science of Speed, produced for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and written and hosted by Diandra Leslie-Pelecky, explains the scientific principles that are so essential to the NASCAR experience. Viewers learn how science makes cars powerful, agile, fast and safe – and how these same principles affect their own cars.

Science of the Olympic Winter Games
NBC Learn, the educational arm of NBC News, teamed up with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to produce Science of the Olympic Winter Games, a 16-part video series that explores the science behind individual Olympic events, including Downhill and Aerial Skiing, Speed Skating and Figure Skating, Curling and Hockey, and Ski Jumping, Bobsledding and Snowboarding. Each video is complemented with lesson plans which include fun classroom activities. The lesson plans were written by teachers at Academic Business Consultants for grades 6-9 and are aligned with California State Standards.

Exploratorium: Sports
The Exploratorium website provides creative educational materials for introductory physics students and teachers. Users can learn about the science behind a homerun, find out how the physics of balance helps enthusiasts surf the waves, and discover the physics behind many other popular sports. The site is equipped with interviews, enticing images, and enthralling descriptions. Visitors can find interesting articles covering sports topics such as fitness challenges for climbers and the way balls bounce.

Paintball: Chemistry Hits Its Mark
The first paintballs were fired by foresters and ranchers to mark trees and cattle. In the 1980s, someone got the idea that it would be more fun to fire paintballs at people than at trees and cows. Thus the sport of paintball was born. In this article from ChemMatters, learn how the one billion paintballs manufactured each year are a product of chemistry and engineering. You’ll need to scroll down a couple of pages to get to the Paintball article.

Golf Balls
Since the late 1800s, chemists have been called on to find ways to produce lighter, faster, and durable golf balls. This site traces the chemistry that has transformed the ball and promises to create a ball that will “soar like a cruise missile, hit the ground at a very shallow angle, and roll for up to 40 yards on hard ground.”

Extreme Adventure
Do you have what it takes to win the Ultimate Race? Find out with the Tryscience Extreme Challenge! Compete on seven courses in four sports- mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing and snowboarding. You must train and apply the science behind the sport to beat the challenge time and earn each course medal.

Come to the Middle School Portal 2: Math and Science Pathways online network to discuss this and many other topics and connect with colleagues!

Brave New World of Physics?

What is the

Largest machine
Fastest racetrack
Coldest place
Emptiest space
Hottest spot

on earth?

It’s the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that is scheduled to be “turned on” September 10, 2008. The LHC is a gigantic scientific instrument near Geneva, Switzerland that is 100m underground. It is a particle accelerator where two beams of subatomic particles called hadrons will travel in opposite directions inside a circular accelerator, gaining energy with every 17-mile lap, and finally collide. Physicists are using the LHC to recreate the conditions just after the Big Bang, by colliding the two beams head-on at very high energy. The collider is currently cooling down to its final operating temperature of approximately
-271.25 °C (1.9 Kelvin).

There are many hypotheses as to what will result from these collisions (including the end of the world as we know it). Collisions in the LHC will generate temperatures more than 100,000 times hotter than the heart of the sun. Physicists hope that under these conditions, protons and neutrons will ‘melt’, creating a state of matter that probably existed just after the Big Bang when the universe was still extremely hot. Measurements on the particles created in the collisions – their paths, energies, and their identities – will be recorded and analyzed. Physicists are also hoping that the LHC will help them understand why our universe appears to be composed almost entirely of matter, but no antimatter.

The physics behind the LHC is, of course, beyond the understanding of middle school students. However, the LHC is a wonderful example to use when talking about the differences between science and technology and that technology provides tools for investigations, inquiry, and analysis.

Facts and Figures
This fact sheet describes the amazing specifications of this machine.

A Giant Takes on Physics Biggest Questions
This 2007 article from the New York Times describes the history of the project and provides a description of Higgs-boson, aka the God particle.

Doomsday Fears Spark Lawsuit
This March 27, 2008 blog post by science editor Alan Boyle describes the lawsuit brought against the builders of the LHC “…over fears that the experiment might create globe-gobbling black holes or never-before-seen strains of matter that would destroy the planet.”

Twists in the Doomsday Debate
This August 19, 2008 blog post by Alan Boyle brings us up-to-date with the lawsuit and how the collider is still on schedule.

We Need Your Help

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. You can also request email notification when new content is posted (see right navigation bar).

Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We want your feedback on all of the NSDL Middle School Portal science publications. Email us at

Physics Fun at the Fair

Many kids and adults judge an amusement park’s fun factor by the thrill derived from its biggest and fastest roller coaster. What’s behind the thrills and chills? Ride designers use basic physics concepts involving force, motion, friction, direction, and speed to simulate danger as well as make the rides safe. According to the National Science Education Standards, middle school students need a strong foundation in the same basic concepts. The following resources illustrate how physics puts the fun in amusement park rides.

Funderstanding Roller CoasterNSDL Annotation
A Java applet allows students to manipulate their own simple roller coaster. Students can change the height of two hills and a loop, the speed and mass of the car, and the gravity and friction being applied. By experimenting with these variables, students will see how basic physics principles guide the engineering behind the design of real roller coasters.

Amusement Park PhysicsNSDL Annotation
You learn how the laws of physics are applied to many favorite amusement park rides, including roller coasters, bumper cars, carousels, and free fall and pendulum rides. A glossary and related resources are provided.

Centripetal Force: Roller Coaster LoopsNSDL Annotation
What can be learned from a roller coaster ride? This video segment of a real ride explains the difference between centrifugal force and centripetal force and illustrates how roller coasters rely on centripetal force to give you a thrilling ride.

Make Tracks
At this site, you can design a roller coaster and then climb aboard and see how it rides! Watch the ride from right above the car itself or, if your stomach isn’t up to that, from a fixed position away from the track. Students will get a continuous readout of the coaster speed and acceleration. A fun site!

We Need Your Help

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. You can also request email notification when new content is posted (see right navigation bar).

Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We want your feedback on all of the NSDL Middle School PortalNSDL Annotation publications. Email us at