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Building and Testing Earthquake-Proof Structures

Not all structures withstand ground motion in the same way. Size, shape and materials used all make a difference. Structures have a natural frequency and they have a certain (totally acceptable) amount of flex. 

Ductility and malleability tell us how much a material can be stretched and shaped before it fractures. Steel and aluminum are both very malleable and ductile. In an earthquake, materials like aluminum and steel can perform better than brittle materials like brick and stone. 

In this activity, students try to build structures that will withstand a Richter 8 shaking. Materials may be used alone or in combination. 

Objectives

  • Model and describe the effect of earthquakes on buildings.

Materials

  • Earthquake simulator (alternatively, a box top could be used)

  • Buckets of building materials (K’NEX, LEGO, KEVA or other)

Key Questions

  • Which materials worked the best? Why?
  • Were taller or shorter buildings more stable? Wider or skinnier?

What To Do

  1. Divide students into groups of 3 or 4.
  2. Each group receives a bucket of building materials.
  3. Students build towers with some constraints. Create your own challenges or try some of these: 

    • The building must have 2 floors and be at least _____ cm tall.
    • The building may not extend out past a given base.
    • Some buildings may only use LEGO, K’NEX or a combination of the two. 

    You may wish to add a time limit.

  4. Test the structures using the earthquake simulator. 

    Alternative: For a less accurate (but still fun) option, affix the structure to a box top or piece of cardboard and shake increasingly harder. 

Extensions

  • How does this relate to what was learned in Activity 4 (What’s Shakin’)?
  • What materials would be best for real buildings? What characteristics should these materials have?

Other Resources

Science World Resources | Full Unit | Earthquakes