Learning from home? Find hands-on activities perfect for distance learning. Browse now!

Hands-on Activity: Testing Model Structures: Jell-O Earthquake in the Classroom

Quick Look

Grade Level: 5 (3-5)

Time Required: 45 minutes

Expendable Cost/Group: US $1.00

Group Size: 1

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Earth and Space

Summary

Students make sense of the design challenges engineers face that arise from earthquake phenomena. They learn how engineers design and construct buildings to withstand earthquake damage by following steps of the engineering design process to build their own model structures using only toothpicks and marshmallows. They experiment to see how earthquake-proof their buildings are by testing them in an earthquake simulated in a pan of Jell-O®.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

An upside down damaged house among debris following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Ofunato, Japan.
Students model an earthquake-proof structure
copyright
Copyright © http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/86/US_Navy_110315-N-2653B-107_An_upended_house_is_among_debris_in_Ofunato,_Japan,_following_a_9.0_magnitude_earthquake_and_subsequent_tsunami.jpg

Engineering Connection

Because earthquakes can cause walls to crack, foundations to move and even entire buildings to crumple, engineers incorporate into their structural designs techniques that withstand damage from earthquake forces, for example, cross bracing, large bases and tapered geometry. Earthquake-proof buildings are intended to bend and sway with the motion of earthquakes, or are isolated from the movement by sliders. Engineers use the engineering design process to come up with an idea, test it, and then re-engineer the structure based on its performance.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Identify some of the factors that make buildings earthquake-proof, including cross bracing, large "footprints," and tapered geometry.
  • Model an earthquake-proof structure using simple materials.
  • Compare a model structure with what it represents.
  • Understand why engineers need to learn about earthquakes.
  • Learn what causes earthquakes and how engineers use this knowledge to design more 'earthquake-proof' structures.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

By engaging in the science and engineering practices of developing and testing models, students make sense of the design challenges engineers face that arise from earthquake phenomena. Students explore the disciplinary core concepts of engineering design and earth and human activity while applying the crosscutting concepts of system models, structure and cause and effect.

NGSS Performance Expectation

3-5-ETS1-1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost. (Grades 3 - 5)

Do you agree with this alignment?

Click to view other curriculum aligned to this Performance Expectation
This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process, or system and includes several criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Alignment agreement:

Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account.

Alignment agreement:

A system can be described in terms of its components and their interactions.

Alignment agreement:

NGSS Performance Expectation

3-5-ETS1-3. Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved. (Grades 3 - 5)

Do you agree with this alignment?

Click to view other curriculum aligned to this Performance Expectation
This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Plan and conduct an investigation collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence, using fair tests in which variables are controlled and the number of trials considered.

Alignment agreement:

Use a model to test interactions concerning the functioning of a natural system.

Alignment agreement:

Tests are often designed to identify failure points or difficulties, which suggest the elements of the design that need to be improved.

Alignment agreement:

Different solutions need to be tested in order to determine which of them best solves the problem, given the criteria and the constraints.

Alignment agreement:

NGSS Performance Expectation

4-ESS3-2. Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural Earth processes on humans. (Grade 4)

Do you agree with this alignment?

Click to view other curriculum aligned to this Performance Expectation
This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Generate and compare multiple solutions to a problem based on how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the design solution.

Alignment agreement:

A variety of hazards result from natural processes (e.g., earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions). Humans cannot eliminate the hazards but can take steps to reduce their impacts.

Alignment agreement:

Testing a solution involves investigating how well it performs under a range of likely conditions.

Alignment agreement:

Cause and effect relationships are routinely identified, tested, and used to explain change.

Alignment agreement:

Engineers improve existing technologies or develop new ones to increase their benefits, to decrease known risks, and to meet societal demands.

Alignment agreement:

  • Relate volume to the operations of multiplication and addition and solve real world and mathematical problems involving volume. (Grade 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Apply the formulas V = l × w × h and V = b × h for rectangular prisms to find volumes of right rectangular prisms with whole-number edge lengths in the context of solving real world and mathematical problems. (Grade 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Students will develop an understanding of the attributes of design. (Grades K - 12) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Students will develop an understanding of engineering design. (Grades K - 12) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Students will develop abilities to apply the design process. (Grades K - 12) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Models are used to communicate and test design ideas and processes. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Test and evaluate the solutions for the design problem. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Apply the formulas V = l × w × h and V = b × h for rectangular prisms to find volumes of right rectangular prisms with whole-number edge lengths. (Grade 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Develop and communicate an evidence based scientific explanation around one or more factors that change Earth's surface (Grade 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each student needs:

For the entire class to share:

  • eight 8½-inch square disposable baking dishes, or one 8½ x 11-inch disposable roasting or baking pan
  • 8 boxes Jell-O® - plus a stove, water and pan to make it in advance

Worksheets and Attachments

Visit [www.teachengineering.org/activities/view/cub_natdis_lesson03_activity1] to print or download.

More Curriculum Like This

Earthquakes Rock!

They make a model of a seismograph—a measuring device that records an earthquake on a seismogram. Students also investigate which structural designs are most likely to survive an earthquake.

preview of 'Earthquakes Rock!' Lesson
Elementary Lesson
Seismic Waves: How Earthquakes Move Through the Earth

Students learn about the types of seismic waves produced by earthquakes and how they move through the Earth. Students learn how engineers build shake tables that simulate the ground motions of the Earth caused by seismic waves in order to test the seismic performance of buildings.

Introduction/Motivation

Earthquakes happen when rocks break due to high stress, usually caused by friction of the tectonic plates moving by one another. The point where this rock rupture occurs is called the focus of the earthquake and is very far beneath the Earth's surface. The location on the actual surface of the Earth, directly above the focus, is called the epicenter of the earthquake and is where most damage occurs. The release of force at the earthquake's focus creates vibrations that travel in seismic waves away from this spot. Waves that travel along the Earth's surface are called surface waves and waves that travel through the Earth's inner layers are called body waves. The first and fastest of the body waves to travel from the center of an earthquake are called P waves or primary waves. Secondary waves or S waves are slower than P waves and move back and forth. Surface waves and body waves from earthquakes can cause walls to crack, foundations to move and even entire buildings to crumble. Earthquakes can cause loss of life and millions of dollars worth of damage to cities. Engineers continually strive to make buildings stronger to resist the forces of earthquakes and protect the people around. For additional information on earthquakes, please review the Earthquakes Rock! lesson. 

Engineers face the challenge of designing more robust buildings to withstand earthquakes, especially in areas along tectonic plate boundaries that are earthquake-prone. Earthquake-proof buildings are engineered to bend and sway with the motion of earthquakes, instead of cracking and breaking under the pressure.

Have you ever looked at a really tall building, such as a skyscraper? What does it look like? Does it appear fragile and unstable? It might, but it was designed to be quite sturdy and can withstand wind, rain and other natural elements and phenomena. Earthquake-proof buildings typically have cross bracing that forms triangles in its design geometry (like a bridge). Such buildings also typically have a large "footprint," or base, and a tapered shape, decreasing in size as the building gets taller (or simply, smaller at the top). Short buildings are more earthquake proof than tall ones. Why do you think that is? Have you ever climbed up a tree or been on top of a playground jungle gym in the wind? Do you sway more when you are up high than when on the ground? All buildings shake at the same frequency as the shaking of the Earth, but the movement is magnified as the building gets taller. Sometimes, as can be the case during earthquakes, buildings sway too much, crack and crumble and fall.

A photograph shows an upside down damaged house among debris following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Ofunato, Japan.
Upside down damaged house among debris following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Ofunato, Japan.
copyright
Copyright © 2011 Matthew M. Bradley, US Navy, Wikimedia Commons {PD} https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Navy_110315-N-2653B-107_An_upended_house_is_among_debris_in_Ofunato,_Japan,_following_a_9.0_magnitude_earthquake_and_subsequent_tsunami.jpg

How do engineers design products like earthquake-proof buildings? They do this by using the engineering design process. Engineers ask critical questions about what they want to create and what specific need they are addressing. These questions include: What is the problem to solve? What are the project requirements? What are the limitations? What is our goal? This also requires conducting research of the problem. Engineers talk to people with different backgrounds and knowledge to better understand the problem. Then, engineers imagine all the possible features and qualities of the product. This takes a lot of creative brainstorming! After making a list and some sketches of their ideas, all of the engineers plan on one design by working with the best ideas. Once the details of the design have been decided, the team creates the product; then they get to test it out! Tests are made on models of the product or device, which are often at a smaller than full-scale size. In the testing phase, the team pays attention to what needs to be changed to the model to make the product work better. The last step of the engineering design process is to improve the design.

A flowchart of the engineering design process with seven steps placed in a circle arrangement: ask: identify the need and constraints; research the problem; imagine: develop possible solutions; plan: select a promising solution; create: build a prototype; test and evaluate prototype; improve: redesign as needed, returning back to the first step, "ask: identify the need and constraints."
The basic steps of the engineering design process.
copyright
Copyright © Teachengineering.org
Now that you have a better understanding of earthquakes and how our buildings must be designed to withstand the vibrations, you will become engineers and use the engineering design process to imagine possible solutions/designs, plan with your team to select the most promising solution, create your prototype, and test it by simulating an earthquake in your classroom!

Procedure

Before the Activity

  • Prepare the Jell-O® the night before the activity so that it is fully set when students begin the activity. Pour the Jell-O® into eight 8½-inch square pans to be shared by four students, or in one large pan for the entire class to share.
  • Make one marshmallow-toothpick structure as a display example for students.
  • Gather materials and make copies of the Earthquake Journal.

With the Students

  1. Hand out student journals. Have students fill in the top left section of the journal with vocabulary terms. Direct students to record their activity observations as they work.
  2. Tell students that today they are acting as if they are engineers. They will make models of buildings and conduct an experiment to test how well their structures stand up under the stress of an earthquake. Explain to them that this is similar to what some civil engineers do as their jobs.
  3. Show students the display model of a structure.
  4. Illustrate how to make cubes and triangles using toothpicks and marshmallows. Show students how to break a toothpick approximately in half. Explain that cubes and triangles are like building blocks that may be stacked to make towers. The towers can have small or large "footprints" (or bases).
  5. Distribute 30 toothpicks and 30 marshmallows to each student. Explain that the Earth has limited resources, so engineers are typically limited in the resources provided to them when building structures (money, time, materials).
  6. For this engineering challenge, students are limited to using only the materials they have been given to make structures. They may make large or small cubes or triangles by using full-size or broken toothpicks. They may use cross-bracing to reinforce their structures. (Note: For higher grade levels, give students more constraints for their model buildings.) In addition to the material limitation, require that student designs meet one or more of the following constraints, or create your own:
    • Buildings must be at least 2 toothpick levels high
    • Buildings must contain at least 1 triangle
    • Buildings must contain at least 1 square
    • Buildings must contain 1 triangle and 1 square
  1. Place the structures on the pans of Jell-O®.

A photograph shows an assembled structure constructed of marshmallows and toothpicks sitting on a bed of orange Jell-O® in a square glass baking dish.
Figure 1. A student's marshmallow-toothpick structure resting on a bed of Jell-O®.
copyright
Copyright © 2004 Jessica Todd, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Colorado Boulder

  1. If aluminum pans are used, tap the pans on the bottom to simulate compression or primary waves. If glass baking dishes are used, shake them back and forth in a shearing motion to simulate S or secondary waves. To give students a way to focus on changing only one variable at a time, it is recommended to have students select one way to tap or shake the container to generate data about how many parts of their structures collapsed or were undamaged. Perhaps a suggestion that the same person shake or tap the container, or students can figure out how much "force" they are using to generate a certain amount of damage, etc.
  2. After students have tested their structures, have them redesign and rebuild them and finally test them again. What can they do to make the structure stronger? Did it topple? What variable(s) should be changed? Would it help to make the base bigger? Make the structure taller or shorter? Have a class discussion about which structures worked or did not. Then let students design and rebuild as many times as time allows.
  3. Have students draw and label the shapes in their designs (cube, triangle, etc.).
  4. Have students imagine that they are engineers who work for a civil engineering company. Direct them to each make a flyer to convince their company to let them design a better building or structure.
  5. Give students time to finish their journals, as described in the Assessment section.

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Discussion: Discuss with students how natural processes create earthquake hazards. Teachers can also use the Earthquakes Rock! lesson to demonstrate how earthquakes cause waves of movement in the ground.

Journal: Use the attached Earthquake Journal page or have students make their own by doing the following: First, put a title on the page: Measuring Earthquakes. Then divide the page into four quadrants labeled: Vocabulary, What I've Learned, What I Observed, and Questions I Have. Have students enter the new vocabulary words for the lesson (such as: tectonic plates, Ring of Fire, focus, epicenter, surface waves, body waves, P waves, S waves, aftershocks, seismograph, Richter scale, Mercalli scale) in the Vocabulary section.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Journal: Have students record their own observations in the section titled, "What I've observed."

Measurement: Have students measure the length, width, and height of their structures and calculate the volume using the equation V = L x W x H.

Before/After: Have students list types of changes they expect to see in their structures before they test them, then illustrate changes in their structures, after they complete the simulations. Ask students to identify one variable and discuss what happened when they changed the variable. They could reflect on these changes and their causes in a post-activity science journal entry.

As another option, show students before and after pictures of earthquake damage, comparing buildings which remained standing with the least damage to those which did not survive. Students could discuss possible reasons for the damage, observing structure (height, etc.) of the buildings.

Post-Activity Assessment

Journal: Have students fill in the final sections of the journal labeled, "What I've Learned," and "Questions I Have." Solicit questions from the students and let other students answer.

Drawing the Geometry: Have students make drawings and label the shapes in their designs (cube, pyramid, triangle, etc.).

Make a Pitch! Have students imagine being engineers and make flyers to convince a company to let them design a better building or structure.

Making Sense: Have students reflect about the science phenomena they explored and/or the science and engineering skills they used by completing the Making Sense Assessment.

Safety Issues

Inform students that in an experimental testing lab or during science experiments, nothing should ever be put into their mouths. The marshmallows and Jell-O® are not for consumption. Instead, set some aside for a treat after the activity.

Troubleshooting Tips

The activity works best with fresh (soft) marshmallows. As the marshmallows sit out and dry out, they and the structures become stable and rigid.

Do not leave the Jell-O® uncovered too long, as it dries out and becomes less fluid, which affects the activity results.

Activity Extensions

Have student teams write news broadcasts about an earthquake that has hit their hometowns. Have the broadcast begin with something exciting to catch the listener's attention. Then tell the facts of the event. Have the teams share their news broadcasts with the class.

Have students examine the school for earthquake engineering. Does the school building encompass some of the principles of earthquake proofing?

Observe buildings in the community or nearby city. What do students observe about the structure of the buildings?

Obtain fault maps of the area by Internet search. Start by searching the Federal Emergency Management Agency or National Earthquake Education Center. Is the area in a zone at risk for earthquakes? Does the local building codes and architecture plan for this?

Activity Scaling

For higher grades, give students more requirements and constraints for their model buildings.

References

http://earthquake.usgs.gov/4kids/

Copyright

© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Contributors

Jessica Todd; Melissa Straten; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

Acknowledgements

The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under grants from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and National Science Foundation (GK-12 grant no 0338326). However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: September 22, 2020

User Comments & Tips

Free K-12 standards-aligned STEM curriculum for educators everywhere.
Find more at TeachEngineering.org