Hands-on Activity: Survive That Tsunami!

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

A Tsunami Hazard Zone sign that warns people to seek higher ground in the event of an earthquake.
Students learn about tsunamis and their devastation
copyright
Copyright © Geological Survey, http://pubs.usgs.gov/ circ/c1187/images/tsunami.gif.

Summary

Students use a table-top-sized tsunami generator to observe the formation and devastation of a tsunami. They see how a tsunami moves across the ocean and what happens when it reaches the continental shelf. Students make villages of model houses and buildings to test how different material types are impacted by the huge waves. They further discuss how engineers design buildings to survive tsunamis. Much of this activity setup is the same as for the Mini-Landscape activity in Lesson 4 of the Natural Disasters unit.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

No one can stop tsunamis from forming since we cannot prevent earthquakes, volcanoes and landslides, but we can devise ways to minimize the impact of these killer waves on human communities. Engineers design and install seismographs, tide gauges, ocean floor pressure sensors and loud sirens. Engineers also design buildings using materials and shapes that are more likely to survive a tsunami. Between high-tech detection systems and smart structures, the impact of a tsunami strike can be lessened dramatically. But, in many areas, dense populations, unreliable local communication, and poor or nonexistent roads remain the biggest obstacles to quick evacuation to safety.

Pre-Req Knowledge

A familiarity with the concepts of tectonic plates, earthquakes, volcanoes and landslides.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain what causes tsunamis, including movement under the surface of the ocean.
  • Communicate that buildings constructed with materials that are heavier are more likely to survive a tsunami, but may be too expensive or not available.
  • Describe how engineers cannot prevent tsunamis, but they can design and build buildings so that they are more resistant to tsunamis.

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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.

  • 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) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. (Grades 3 - 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • 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) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural Earth processes on humans. (Grade 4) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Analyze and interpret data identifying ways Earth's surface is constantly changing through a variety of processes and forces such as plate tectonics, erosion, deposition, solar influences, climate, and human activity (Grade 5) Details... View more 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) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Divide the class into three groups. Students in group A need:

  • 2 sheets of tissue paper (the gift wrap type)

Students in group B need:

  • 3 sheets of cardstock or manila envelope material

Students in group C need:

  • 3 sheets of notebook paper
  • 40 toothpicks

To share with the entire class:

To make brass model houses:

  • 1 piece brass sheet metal, 4-in x 10-in x .01-in thick (or 10-cm x 25-cm x .025-cm thick, available at hobby or hardware store)
  • Tin snips (scissors also work, but cutting the brass dulls them)

For the table-top-sized tsunami generator:

Note: Most of the following materials can be reused, some for the Mini-Landslide activity in Lesson 5 of the Natural Disasters unit.

  • 1 large, shallow, plastic waterproof tub (8-in x 14-in x 30-in or 20-cm x 36-cm x 76-cm, clear plastic is better but not necessary)
  • 20 to 30-pound (9 to 14 kg) bag of sand
  • 1 piece of sheet metal, ~20-in x 10-in x 0.1-in thick (as long as it is rigid, it is thick enough) or 51-cm x 25-cm x .25-cm thick
  • Duct tape

Introduction/Motivation

What is a tsunami? Well, it is a really large wave — much larger than the waves you see when you splash in a pool or surf at the beach. The difference between a regular wave and a tsunami is that a regular wave is just a surface disturbance of the water, and a tsunami is a disturbance that reaches all the way to the ocean floor!

What do you think causes a tsunami? Well, tsunamis can be caused by anything that moves the ocean or sea floor, like earthquakes, volcanoes and landslides. Think about an underwater earthquake that is caused by the moving of tectonic plates. Do you think that this could move the sea floor and create a tsunami? Yes, it could! Do you think engineers can prevent tsunamis? Engineers cannot prevent natural events like earthquakes or volcanoes, or the tsunamis that can result from them. So, what can engineers do about tsunamis? One thing engineers can do is build structures that can survive a tsunami.

In December 2004 a huge tsunami hit the beach in Indonesia. Do you know from what material most of the destroyed houses were made? Most were made of wood, and some were actually made of paper. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of wooden or paper houses? How might houses made of these materials be a disadvantage when it comes to a tsunami? Well, a house made out of weak material, such as wood or paper, probably will not survive the great forces of a tsunami. So, what can engineers do so that a building or structure is able to survive a tsunami? (Possible ideas: Build it out of stronger material; build it on stilts.) What might be some disadvantages of these types of the new houses? (Possible ideas: More costly and difficult to construct, look different than usual buildings.)

Today, we are going to explore some of the choices that engineers have when designing buildings with tsunamis in mind and make some conclusions as to what shapes and materials make the most tsunami-resistant buildings. Today you are going to make a model building and see if it will survive a tsunami. Are you ready?

Vocabulary/Definitions

Prevent: To keep from happening.

Sea floor: (or ocean floor) The bottom of a sea or ocean.

Structure: Something constructed, such as a building, house, school, bridge or pier.

Survive: To remain alive or in existence. To remain functional or usable.

Tectonic plate: A piece of the Earth's crust that slides over the molten rock of the mantle. As the plates rub against each other, earthquakes result that potentially cause tsunamis.

Tsunami: A large sea wave of local or distant origin that results from large-scale seafloor displacements associated with large earthquakes, major submarine slides or exploding volcanic islands.

Wave: The up and down movement of water.

Procedure

Before the Activity

  • Gather materials and make copies of the Model House Template for the students.
  • (Optional, for younger students, or to speed up the activity) Pre-cut the model house materials, using the Model House Template. Prepare as many sets (one roof and one wall) of each material (tissue paper, cardstock, notebook paper) as you want the students to construct of each material. For example, for a class of 30 students, prepare 10 sets of each of the three types of material.

A diagram shows how the walls and roof are cut and then folded and taped together to form a paper building.
Figure 1. How to construct the model houses.
copyright
Copyright © Geoffrey Hill, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

  • Make 4 brass houses. Using the Model House Template, use tin snips to cut out four walls and four roofs. Fold the walls and roofs as shown in Figure 1. Tape the roofs to the walls.
  • Set up the tsunami generator. It is best to set it up outside, although indoors may work, too.
  1. Fill one end of the tub with sand, creating a continental shelf and beach (see Figures 2 and 3).
  2. At the opposite end of the tub, attach the metal sheet to the bottom of the tub using a piece of duct tape along one edge, so it works like a hinge (see Figures 2 and 3).

A diagram shows sand placed at one end of the tub and a metal plate at the opposite end, hinged with duct tape.
Figure 2. Tsunami generator, view from above.
copyright
Copyright © Geoffrey Hill, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

  1. Fill the tub with water so that most of the sand is covered, but leave some sand above the waterline to represent a sandy beach (see Figure 3).

A diagram shows sand piled at one end of the tub creating an above-water beach and a slope that extends under water. A metal plate taped on the bottom of the opposite end of the tub leans on the back wall of the tub.
Figure 3. Tsunami generator, a side view.
copyright
Copyright © Geoffrey Hill, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

  1. Test the tsunami generator by first leaning the metal plate against the back wall of the tub and then pushing the plate all the way down into the water. A tsunami should form that covers most or the entire beach. To adjust the wave height, adjust the speed with which you push down the plate (see Figure 4).

A series of five diagrams shows how movement of the metal plate generates a wave that hits the beach.
Figure 4. Tsunami generator in action. Pushing the metal plate down into the water creates a wave that moves across the tub of water and onto the sandy beach.
copyright
Copyright © Geoffrey Hill, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

With the Students

A diagram shows one of the paper houses with toothpicks attached to form stilts.
Figure 5. Model house on toothpick stilts.
copyright
Copyright © Geoffrey Hill, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

  1. Divide the class into three groups (A, B and C). Each group will make a different type of house, using either tissue paper, cardstock or notebook paper and toothpicks. Students in each group need not sit together while they construct their model houses.
  2. Provide each student with supplies according to his/her assigned group, as well as access to scissors and masking tape.
  3. Demonstrate the construction of the buildings as shown in Figure 1 and on the diagram on the Model House Template. (This is a great time to point out to the students that they are working with geometric shapes.)
  4. Provide time for each student to construct his/her type of building (tissue, cardstock or notebook paper) using scissors and tape.
  5. Have the students who construct the buildings using notebook paper tape toothpicks to the four corners of their buildings so that the toothpicks work as stilts (see Figure 5).
  1. Give the students time to decorate their houses using markers. They can label and decorate their model structures to represent a variety of community buildings, such as houses, schools, bank, grocery store, restaurant, police station, library, city hall, power plant, playground, factory, boat marina, etc.
  2. Explain to the students that the metal plate in the tsunami generator model demonstrates the sea floor movement causing huge ocean waves.
  3. In four different trials, set up the buildings made by each group of students, and the brass buildings made by the teacher. First, have the students who constructed their model buildings from tissue paper place them scattered across on the beach to create a paper model village (see Figure 6). Before the tsunami, have students predict what will happen to the village.
  4. A tsunami hits! Using the metal plate, create a wave that swamps most of the land. Create several more waves and remind the students that there is usually more than one wave associated with a tsunami. Expect the waves to destroy most of the tissue paper buildings.

A diagram shows water in the tsunami generator sending a wave towards a collection of paper buildings on the pile of sand at one end of the tub.
Figure 6. A tsunami wave moves towards the paper model village.
copyright
Copyright © Geoffrey Hill, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

  1. Ask the students what they thought of the tsunami hitting the tissue village. Is this what they expected? Why did the tissue buildings fail so easily? What else do you observe?
  2. Perform steps 8 - 10 again, this time with the students who built the cardstock buildings. In this scenario, students observe that some buildings move slightly, but overall the cardstock village survives better than the tissue village. Note: After several waves the sand erodes slightly, so build up the continental shelf and beach with more sand, as needed.
  3. Perform steps 8 - 10 again, this time with the students who built the notebook paper buildings with toothpick stilts. Make sure students just set the stilted buildings on the sand and do not push the toothpicks all the way into the sand (see Figure 7).

A diagram shows water in the tsunami generator sending a wave onshore past a collection of paper buildings on stilts on the beach.
Figure 7. A tsunami wave moves through the stilts of this paper model village.
copyright
Copyright © Geoffrey Hill, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

  1. Finally perform steps 8-10 again, this time placing on the beach the brass buildings the teacher made in advance of the activity (see Figure 8). Have several tsunamis wash over them.

 A diagram of the tsunami generator sending a wave toward a village of buildings on the sand pile at the end of the tub.
Figure 8. Brass model house village.
copyright
Copyright © Geoffrey Hill, ITL Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2005.

  1. Conclude with a class discussion comparing results of the four trials. Talk with the students about their observations. Which materials held up the best? Worst? Rank the types of model buildings in order from worst to best at surviving the tsunamis. How might engineers design a building or structure so it is able to survive a tsunami? What might be some disadvantages of these types of houses? How might you re-design your model buildings to improve their chances of surviving big waves? Conduct the summary assessment activities as described in the Assessment section.

Attachments

Safety Issues

  • Students should not handle the brass houses since the edges are sharp.

Troubleshooting Tips

This activity can be messy, so it is best to set it up outside.

To create more controlled and consistent waves, have the teacher operate the tsunami generator for each trial. It helps to practice creating waves before conducting this activity in class.

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Voting: Have the class vote yes or no on the following question:

  • Can engineers prevent tsunamis? (Answer: No. Tsunamis are natural events caused by earthquakes, landslides and volcanoes, over which people have no control. Since we cannot control or prevent tsunamis, engineers help us predict and survive them.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Prediction: Have students predict the outcome of the activity before the activity is performed. Before hitting each village with a wave, ask the students: What do you think is going to happen to the village? (Students should start to realize that the buildings made from the lighter and more water absorbent materials are more susceptible to tsunami damage. The heavier buildings and those built up and away from the water are most likely to survive.) Have the students rank the houses from lightest to heaviest materials in their summary observations.

Post-Activity Assessment

Concluding Discussion: Ask the students and discuss as a class:

  • Describe the results of the four tsunami trials? How did they compare? What did you observe?
  • Rank the types of model buildings in order from worst to best at surviving the tsunamis.
  • How might engineers design a building or structure so it is able to survive a tsunami? (Possible answers: Build it out of concrete, stone or bricks [heavier, stronger materials]; build it on stilts so it is above the water flow; make sure it has a deep footing into the soil; or shape it so that water flows around it.)
  • What might be some disadvantages of these types of houses? (Possible answers: Buildings like this might cost more to construct, be more difficult to build, or be considered less attractive.)
  • How might you re-design your models to improve their chances of surviving big waves?

Re-Engineering: Ask the students how they might improve the buildings in their village. Have them sketch or test their concepts for tsunami-resistant buildings. What material would they use? How would they be shaped? What features would they have? Where would they be located?

Activity Extensions

Have students research the house designs engineers have come up with to resist tsunamis. Look at the website http://senseable.mit.edu/tsunami-prajnopaya/ to see what a group of engineers from Harvard and MIT are doing. Have them write a paragraph describing the building and what makes it unique.

Activity Scaling

  • For lower grades, pre-cut the paper and consider pre-building the structures.
  • For upper grades, after exploring what happens to the different villages during a tsunami, have students design and build their own new buildings to survive a tsunami. Provide limited supplies and a size constraint of 2.5 cubic cm.

References

Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Accessed March 1, 2006. (Source of some vocabulary definitions, with some adaptation) http://www.dictionary.com

ITIC, International Tsunami Information Centre. Updated January 17, 2006. U.S. National Weather Service, NOAA. Accessed March 1, 2006. http://www.tsunamiwave.info/

NOAA Tsunami Website. 2005. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Accessed March 1, 2006. http://www.tsunami.noaa.gov

Tsunami Safe(r) House: A Design for the Prajnopaya Foundation. 2005. SENSEable City Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge, MA. Accessed March 1, 2006. http://senseable.mit.edu/tsunami-prajnopaya/

Contributors

Geoffrey Hill; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Denise Carlson

Copyright

© 2006 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

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 a grant 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: November 7, 2017

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