Shaking All Around-Earthquakes

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SWBAT use the engineering design process to create an earthquake proof structure.

Big Idea

Earthquakes can shake things up!

Setting the Stage


Next Generation Science Standards:

In this lesson, students learn that earthquakes can shake buildings and cause damage to the land. They also learn that earthquake engineers work on building structures that are earthquake proof. They build structures with cross bracing, large bases, and tapered geometry. Engineers determine the design, test them out, and try again. Students are engaged in this process to help design an earthquake structure. This lesson is important because students not only learn how or why Earthquakes happen, but they also focus on creating a structure that can withstand an earthquake.

Science and Engineering Practice: 

SP 2 addresses using and developing models (i.e., diagram, drawing, physical replica, diorama, dramatization, or storyboard) that represent concrete events or design solutions. In this lesson, students create an earthquake proof structure. They are provided with limited resources such as: toothpicks, marshmallows. 

SP 8 addresses obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information in K–2. Students communicate information with others in oral and written form to discuss scientific ideas.  In this lesson, students obtain information about earthquakes by reviewing a video. Then they communicate with group members to determine the best way to construct their earthquake proof structure.

Prior Knowledge:

Students have learned how the land can change slowly due to weathering, erosion, and deposition.

Junior Scientists:

In my class, students are called Junior Scientists. They wear lab jackets that they created early in the school year to wear during their experiments. I call them Junior Scientists to encourage them to major in Science and Math related careers. I want them to develop a love for Science and Math. Also, we sing "It Is Science Time" before each lesson.

The lesson has been adapted from this website.


  • Pan of Jello
  • Toothpicks (30 per group)
  • Mini Marshmallows (30 per group)
  • Prepare the Jell-O the night before the activity. The Jell-O should be in a 8 1/2 inch square aluminum pan. You can have two pan prepared. 
  • Shaking All Around-Lab sheet
  • Earthquake-Effect Web


10 minutes

At their desks, students sing a song that the class sings at the opening of each science lesson.  This song motivates and engages my Junior Scientists at the beginning of each science lesson. During Science lessons, I call my students scientists to empower them and empower them to become dreamers and doers.

“I can” statement

I call on a student to read our "I Can" statement for the day. While using an over-sized microphone, a scientist says, "I can design an earthquake proof structure using the engineer design process." The "I Can" statement helps students take ownership of the lesson as they put standards into context. The other students praise the student that reads the "I Can" statement by clapping.  I encourage students to give each other praise to boost their self-esteem. 


I show the students a video. The video helps students learn about earthquakes and how to create earthquake resistant structures. I show this video to help my auditory and visual learners. Also, I want the students to build background knowledge about creating an earthquake proof structure so they can be prepared to design their own earthquake proof structure.

Next Step

Then I inform the students that they are going to create an earthquake proof structure using marshmallows and toothpicks. I model how they can break the toothpick in half if needed. Also, I model for them how to put the marshmallows and toothpicks together to construct their creation. I wanted to model for the students so they could understand how to use the items.


30 minutes

When I say "We Are On The Move" and my students stand and sing, We Are On The Move. This routine helps my students to move to their group's table with very little distraction. This also helps my auditory learners who enjoy singing as well as my kinesthetic children who enjoy moving.  

When students get to their tables, they begin to assign their roles: a person to record, measure, and report. I assign the leader who is one of my advanced students. Leadership qualities are present. They put on their group labels with a clothes pin to ensure that I know each child's role.  Students are grouped by abilities to support  learning. I want all my students to take ownership of their learning, so assigning roles permits students to develop confidence in themselves as well as use their strengths to accomplish their group's goals.  All hands must be on deck.  The groups are reminded of the group rules. The group rules are located at their table so they can reference them.

I inform the students that today they are going to be earthquake engineers. "In your groups, you are going to create a model and conduct an investigation to test how well the structure that you create can stand up to the movement of an earthquake."

At the group's table, they are provided with 30 toothpicks and 30 small marshmallows. I inform the students that they can only use these resources to create their structures. I let them know that there are some restrictions. The restrictions help students to be conservative with the limited amount of materials. This lets them understand that sometimes you have to solve problems in a creative way depending on your provided resources/materials.

I inform the groups that they should attempt to use shapes such as triangles and squares to construct their model. They should decide if their model should be tall or short.  I also inform them that their structures are going to be placed on a pan of Jell-O which represents a shake table. To accomplish the challenge, I tell them that their structures must remain standing before, during, and after the shake.

Before the groups can start creating, I remind them of the engineering design process. First, you have to ask, imagine, plan, create, and improve. They are given a lab sheet to help with the investigation.

The groups are provided with 30 minutes to create this structure. I use a timer, so they can stay on task and get finished in a timely manner.

Shaking It All Around-Lab Sheet-Student Work





10 minutes


When the students present, they discuss how they made their structure. They also tell the other groups why they believe their structure works. Then the groups are permitted to place the Earthquake structure in the pan to see if their creation works. I tap or shake the pan. After each group presents, the other groups provide feedback to their peers. 

Teacher note: If you use an aluminum pan, tap the pan on the bottom to create primary waves. If glass baking dishes are used, shake them back and forth to create secondary waves. 


15 minutes

While groups are at their tables, the groups are permitted to make improvements to their Earthquake structure if it did not successfully pass the test. Groups are giving 10 minutes to make improvements to their Earthquake structures.

It is important that students understand that engineers test their creations to see if it works. If it is does not work, they can make the needed adjustments. Also, engineers are giving restrictions. Therefore, I time the students as a restriction. There is a clock in room for students to view.

 Try Again

The groups that were not successful with their structures and made improvements, can try their structure again to see if it works. This is imperative because engineers are always making adjustments in order to evaluate their product. 


15 minutes

While students are at their desks, they are provided with an exit ticket. They are to write on the following topic "What makes a good structure for earthquakes?" The exit ticket permits me to assess students' understanding of earthquakes structure. I take the exit ticket up so I can evaluate students' knowledge of the engineer design experiment.

Shaking All Around-Exit Ticket-Student Work