STEM Design Challenge: Building Earthquake Proof Buildings AND a Shake Table

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About: It's probably science. I have 10 years experience as a public school teacher. I make stuff. Cheers!

Challenge: What is the tallest earthquake proof structure your group can build?

Constraints and Rules: You are limited to using only the following materials in your actual structure: 10 Pieces of Spaghetti, 20 Marshmallows, and 30 centimeters of Tape. Your building will be considered “earthquake proof” if it can retain its complete structure on the shake table and not fall over during a period of 10 seconds of shaking the table. For the height, the highest point of the roof will be measured. The roof must be where 3 or more pieces come to a point or where four corners imply a flat roof surface. No “Antenna” type structures will not be included in the height measurement.

(My inspiration for this activity was The Marshmallow Challenge!)

This activity is well suited for 6th to 9th grade students.

Supplies:

Building Materials for Each Student Group:

  • 10 Pieces of Spaghetti
  • 20 Mini Marshmallows
  • 30 Centimeters of Tape

Tools for Each Student Group:

  • Scissors
  • Ruler
  • Shake Table (Medium size Sterilite storage container with holes, 4 rubber bands (large 7 inch size), 4 binder clips, hard base about 8" x 10" in size like a clipboard or handheld dry erase board)

As a teacher, for about $70 (at the time of writing this) you can get a bulk pack of 6 Sterilite containers (I use this all the time, not just for this activity!), 9 rolls of masking tape, a bag of rubber bands (honestly, these are likely in your school supply closet!), boxes of binder clips, and 12 dry erase boards (again, I use these all the time for other purposes too). Considering all these materials can also be used for other purposes, it's very cost effective. This is enough for 6 lab groups (with the exception of buying spaghetti and marshmallows from your local grocery story).

Basically I used these materials because I ALREADY had them and you likely do to! Also, there are other ways of making shake tables, so use the method that matches materials you already have on hand.

Teacher Notes

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Step 1: Be Inspired.

Depending on your teacher education background, or your personal interests, earthquakes may or may not be your "thing". Just like students often watch YouTube videos to learn new things, we as teachers turn to the internet to find out interesting and important connections to make our instruction relevant and rigorous for our students.

Ross Stein is a leading earthquake expert (ahem, geophysicist) and has a great ted talk about earthquakes. Another relevant video about why you do not prepare for earthquakes is also worth a watch.

Seismologist Dr. Lucy Jones is very active on Twitter and worth following. The USGS has a TON of great resources for other lesson ideas to follow or precede this instructable activity.

To setup, I have all the materials (for the most part) ready to go at each lab space. I do not count out marshmallows, but use the honor system and have a cupful easy to access at each table. I let students also get their own spaghetti noodle pieces so they can ensure each piece is to their liking (and again, it saves me time so I don't have to count them out for 24 groups that may do this in a day).

Step 2: Introduce the Challenge to Your Students.

I introduce the challenge by explaining what they are going to be do using the engineering design process.

For example, I go over some of the following points:

Identify the problem: Many people die each year from earthquakes (Source). and most of these deaths are a result of collapsing buildings (Source).

Identify criteria and constraints: Your challenge - What is the tallest earthquake proof structure your group can build? You are limited to using only the following materials in your actual structure: 10 Pieces of Spaghetti, 20 Marshmallows, and 30 centimeters of Tape. Your building will be considered “earthquake proof” if it can retain its complete structure on the shake table and not fall over during a period of 10 seconds of shaking the table. For the height, the highest point of the roof will be measured. The roof must be where 3 or more pieces come to a point or where four corners imply a flat roof surface. No “Antenna” type structures will not be included in the height measurement.

Brainstorm possible solutions: I have students write “Possible Solutions” on their notebook paper and draw or describe as many ideas as they can in 3 minutes. I have them think of ideas individually before discussing ideas with their lab group.

Step 3: Show Students How to Build and Use the Shake Table.

I let students assemble the shake table when they get in their group. This saves time for me having to do it for all my 8 groups, plus I don't want to steal their fun!

I model how to assemble the table. (It's really easy!)

  1. Weave a rubber band through two of the holes in the storage container so both ends of the rubber band are inside the container.
  2. Grab the two loop ends with the binder clip.
  3. Clip the binder clip to the base. If you use whiteboards, have the white side facing down and wood side face up.
  4. Repeat this for the other three sides.

I also model how to shake the table. This requires two students.

  1. One students represents P waves and pushes and pulls the container.
  2. At the same time, another student represents S waves and moves the container from side to side.

Be sure to emphasize that you are modeling like a moderate, 5 on the Richter scale type of earthquake. Otherwise, as you can imagine, students would shake it way too much. I emphasize that the container should not lift up from the surface of the table.

Step 4: Have Students Complete the Challenge!

Okay, finally! In lab groups students complete the challenge. I do not have an official time limit, but they do have to complete these during the class period. This generally takes 15-35 minutes depending on the group.

Continuing with the engineering design process, students are:

  • Sharing ideas with team members.
  • Selecting a design to try.
  • Building the selected design.
  • Testing the design.
  • Making changes as needed.

While students are working, I walk around and answer questions (like, "Can I tape the structure to the base?" to which I quietly nod "Yes". Foundations are important!). I tell students they cannot actually shake the table with their structure unless I, the safety inspector, am watching. I take officially height measurements before the team shakes their structure.

Step 5: Students Reflect on the Process, Results, and the Big Ideas.

Discussion: List at least TEN other considerations that engineers have to take into account when designing and constructing buildings (Hint: Thinking about Earthquakes is definitely not the only or top thing likely considered.). For an extra challenge, order these ten things from least to most important to you.


Conclusion:
What is needed to make a building more earthquake proof (include information you learned from this lab as well as from other research)? Why is constructing earthquake proof buildings important?

Side note about the shake table in this picture: I actually only have 6 of the Sterilite containers but I would run 8 lab groups. I used 2 liter soda bottle holders for these other two groups! You might be able to get these FREE from a local business!

Modifications to this Activity: I have a modification to this activity that makes it more of a real world challenge, utilizing budgets and analyzing costs per square centimeter, that you can read about on my website here.


So that's my STEM earthquake proof structure challenge! I'd love to hear about how this goes if you do this yourself. If you do your own version of an earthquake proof challenge, how do you do it? We're here to learn together!

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    2 Discussions

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    WeTeachThemSTEM

    23 days ago

    This is excellent! I really love the DIY Shake Tables! Thank you for sharing this exciting STEM challenge. :)

    1 reply