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.

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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.