Engineering Earthquake Structures: Day 1

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Students will be able to analyze evidence about the properties of seismic waves and use this to design and test an earthquake resistant structure.

Big Idea

Over the course of five days, students analyze text, engage in scientific discourse, use the design process to test earthquake resistant structures, and investigate analog and. digital signals! It's all about how waves impact our lives in the real world!

Connections to the NGSS and the Common Core

Over the course of  4 – 5 days, students design earthquake resistant structures based on their research of seismic design principles.  Along the way, they utilize technical reading and writing strategies, engage in scientific discourse based on evidence, experience the engineering design process and are introduced to the advantages of digital vs. analog signals.  Components of this lesson connect to the following NGSS and Common Core Standards:

MS-ETS1-1  Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.

MS-ETS1-2. Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

MS-ETS1-3. Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.

MS-ETS1-4. Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process.

MS-PS-4-2  Develop and use a model to describe that waves are reflected, absorbed, or transmitted through various materials.

MS-PS-4-3  Integrate qualitative and technical information to support the claim that digitized signals are a more reliable way to encode and transmit information than analog signals.

On day one, students analyze text so that they can obtain and evaluate information (SP8) and engage in evidence based discussions (SP7). 

Day two, students use a design matrix  to determine which design solutions meet the criteria (ETS1-2) and begin testing their designs on the shake table.

On day 3, students begin to shake their initial prototypes and collect qualitative and quantitative data to create new design solutions.  In addition, they work on generating questions and engage in scientific discourse as they explore connections to wave properties as the listen to the "song" or "sound a comet makes" that was collected by the Rosetta probe that landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko!

On day four, as students test their earthquake resistant structures they improve their designs based on the results (ETS.1).  Moreover, students compare their results with other groups and designs to incorporate all successful components into a “super design” (ETS1-3).  In addition, students are introduced to the difference between an analog and digital signal.

Day five of this lesson asks students to look at real world constraints and impacts.  After developing their classroom prototype, students consider real world implications to society and the environment.  They recognize that technologies have limitations and that while prototypes meet our societal needs and wants, they also have short and long term consequences.  During this lesson, students further their understanding of analog and digital signals as the teacher takes the students through a visual model/analogy with a children's swimming pool!

Connecting to the Essential Question: What am I going to be learning today?

5 minutes

Ask students, “What are you going to learn today?”.  Students should respond by stating something connected to the NGSS Essential Question (I keep this posted on my front board.).  Thus, students might say, “We need to answer the question, what are the characteristic properties of waves and how can they be used in the world?”.  

Explain that over the course of the next days, they will be looking into the characteristic properties of seismic waves and how they can be used to solve real world problems.  Ask students to self-assess where they are with the idea that waves can be used in the world.  Ask them to use their fingers, either visible or under their table, to indicate on a scale of 1 to 4 where they are with the idea that scientists and engineers use waves to solve problems.

Mini Lesson: Seismic Waves and the Ladder of Discourse

15 minutes

Explain that over the course of the next days, they will be looking into how engineers solve problems that meet our societal needs and wants.  For example, seismic waves during earthquakes can cause great damage and injury.  Engineers take information based in science and math about seismic waves to develop new technologies that can help us solve these problems. 

Ask the students to “talk to the text” as they gain some background about the properties of seismic waves by reading the article, “Earthquakes”.  Remind them of the “Ladder of Discourse”, and that as they interact with the text they should be making “Tweets”, “Huh?’s”, “Found it!’s”, and “Discourse”.  (For more information on how I introduced “The Ladder of Discourse”, see this lesson.)  After reading and interacting with the text, provide students with large chart paper with “The Ladder of Discourse” on it. 

Using the connections and information the students gathered in the articles ask the students to cite the text to answer the following:

  • What are some characteristic properties of S waves?
  • What are some characteristic properties of P waves?
  • Are seismic waves mechanical waves?  What evidence do you have to support this?
  • How can P and S waves be used in a positive wave?
  • What are some negative consequences of P and S waves?

Seismic Design Principles: Earthquake Resistant Structure Challenge

45 minutes

Provide students with the Seismic Design Principles: Earthquake Structure Challenge Student Sheet.  Explain to them that they are engineers and a client hires them to design them a new building to house their business in California. 

The client is building near a known fault line and thus is concerned about damage by earthquakes.  Your client needs at least a two-story structure to house its workers.  The company has researched and has found that the typical earthquake in their area lasts approximately one minute.  With your engineering team, create a prototype structure that could survive an earthquake lasting this length of time.

Let students know that they will have many constraints for this challenge.  Ask students to recall what a “constraint” is.  Students should respond that constraints are rules or guidelines that must be followed. The constraints are as follows:

  • Materials are limited to 50 straws, 20 marshmallows, 20 paper clips, 20 straight pins, and 10 Popsicle sticks.
  • You may break/cut the materials; however, these materials are all you get for all of your design tests.  These materials will be reused on each structure.
  • The structure must be at least 2 stories tall.
  • The structure must be at least 2 stories tall with a height of at least 24 inches tall.
  • The structure must not collapse within the first 1 minute of shaking.
  • You must use the provided cardboard base for your design.
  • Your structure must hold the 200 g mass (bag of sand) somewhere in or on the structure.  The bag of sand can be folded as long as it is 200 g.
  • The top of the structure must be enclosed.  No antennae!  

Students connect their structures to the cardboard using straight pins.  Simply sticking a straight pin through the bottom of the cardboard into the marshmallow touching the cardboard will be sufficient to hold the structure in place.

Teacher Note:  You will need a shake table.  Here is the table that I have.  My district purchased this particular tremor table through a grant.  I know that it is expensive!  I encourage you to write a grant yourself!  Or, create your own shake table for less cost!  

In addition, let students know that the client has a few requirements before they will fund the project. 

The client requirements that must be completed prior to funding the construction of your initial and future prototypes include:

  1.  A sketch of your prototype.
  2.  A verbal explanation of your design choices – You must explain the why you feel your design will be successful.  The client would like you to cite research and seismic design principles in your explanations to prove it is founded in science and engineering.
  3. Proof that you considered multiple designs and evaluated them based on criteria (Design Matrix).
  4. Evidence of data collected during the design process will be required to fund future prototypes.

In order to fulfill these requirements, break down and explain each portion of the student document.  Direct the students' attention to the Seismic Principles and Research Citations section of the document.  Explain that in order to meet the client's requirements, the design must be based on research and evidence.  This chart can help organize the research. 

Explain to students that scientists and engineers have used data collected from earthquakes to develop, “Seismic Design Principles”.  These principles are known to be helpful in a structure surviving an earthquake.  In order to obtain information about the principles, I put together a website that has some earthquake and seismic design principles resources organized.  In the chart, students must identify a seismic design principle, the title of the source they found the information in, and the practical application of that principle in the design. (In other words, what design choice will you use in your prototype because of this principle?)  Emphasize to students that this section must be completed before they can draw their sketch for their prototype.  In addition, let students know that engineers work in teams with the same goal.  So, if someone in a group finds a great resource or idea, they should share it with their group!

Check in with each group to make sure they are identifying seismic design principles that can aid in their design.  It is important not only to ask them about the seismic design principles they have identified, but how that design principle can be used in their own structure.  The videos below demonstrate some responses students may provide as you ask them these questions.


Let students know that each member of the group must complete research and draw their own unique prototype sketch.  Let the students know that once each member of the group has completed research and drawn a sketch, the group must check in with you for directions on how to complete the “Design Matrix”.

Typically the first day, I do not have students finish their research.  I just want to let them to know to check in with me if they do before moving on.  In the lesson plan for Day 2, I explain the design matrix.


5 minutes

Ask students to meet as a group and share the resources and design principles they found most helpful and add anything to their research chart that is needed.  To ensure follow through with this write the name of each group on the board (I number each group).  Before leaving, each group must write down the resource and design principle they found the most important.