Hands-on Activity: Build It Better!

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

A Category F5 tornado observed from the southeast as it approached Elie, Manitoba on June 22, 2007.
Students design a structure that will withstand and protect people from tornadoes.
Copyright © Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:F5_tornado_Elie_Manitoba_2007.jpg


Students apply their knowledge of tornadoes and resulting damage as they work in groups to design structures intended to withstand and protect people from extremely high winds. Each team creates a poster with the name of its engineering firm and a drawing of its structure. Then, each group presents its posters to the class, explaining its tornado-resisting design features. Two support handouts are provided.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers strive to design structures that can endure tornadoes and protect people from violent wind forces. Following storms, they collect evidence to analyze tornado behavior and find better ways to economically build safer structures in high-risk areas. To test the strength and durability of materials and construction methods, engineers re-create tornado conditions. Creative engineering techniques to tornado-proof structures include improved roof shingles and roof design, well-secured house walls, an anchored foundation, and enhanced building materials.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Explain that tornadoes affect humans by causing property damage and loss of life.
  • Describe the damage to structures caused by the forces associated with tornadoes.
  • Explain how and why engineers design new and better buildings to withstand tornadoes.
  • Explain the Fujita Tornado Damage Scale of tornado intensity rates.

More Curriculum Like This


Students learn about tornadoes - their basic characteristics, damage and occurrence. Students are introduced to the ways that engineers consider strong winds, specifically tornadoes, in their design of structures.

Elementary Lesson
Tornado Damage!

In this activity, students learn about how tornadoes are formed and what they look like. By creating a water vortex in a soda bottle, they get a first-hand look at tornadoes.

Elementary Activity

In this activity, students learn about how tornadoes are formed and what they look like. By creating a water vortex in a soda bottle, they get a first-hand look at tornadoes.

Elementary Activity
Naturally Disastrous

Students are introduced to natural disasters and learn the difference between natural hazards and natural disasters.

Elementary Lesson

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.

  • 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?
  • Develop and communicate an evidence-based scientific explanation for changes in weather conditions (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:


Some of the largest and most damaging tornadoes in history occurred in 1999 in Oklahoma and Kansas. Overall, these tornadoes caused 49 deaths and more than $1 billion in damage! Tornadoes are an important topic of study for civil engineers because they are the people who design, build and maintain our roads, railways and structures. Some engineers collect evidence following storms, which they use to help classify tornadoes, dispel tornado myths, and research to design better tornado-resistant structures for high-tornado areas.

One danger of tornadoes is their ability to propel objects like missiles through the air. For example, wind engineers at Texas Tech University especially designed a cannon to test the strength of various construction materials. The cannon fires boards and other objects at more than 100 mph into different building materials to simulate (mimic) the effects of a tornado, such as wood splinters flying into a brick—or other material—building. The high winds blowing over roofs also cause changes in air pressure just above the roofs. The pressure difference between inside and outside a building can cause the building to crumble or the roof to bulge up and be blown away in the wind.

Because buildings are not always built to resist a the forces that come with tornadoes it is important to understand tornado safety procedures. The first thing to do if you learn that a tornado is coming near you is to find shelter, immediately! Safe places include sstorm cellars, basements and interior rooms with no windows. If you are in a mobile home, leave it! Tornadoes often pick up and flatten mobile homes! If you can, place a mattress, sleeping bag or heavy blanket over your body to protect yourself.

Now that you know everything—well not quite everything!—it is time to make a better house for a family that lives in Tornado Alley, the area of the U.S. where most tornadoes occur. Tornadoes can produce winds that are more than 250 mph. According to NOAA, about 1,000 tornadoes are reported across the U.S. in an average year; resulting in 80 deaths and more than 1,500 injuries. Approximately, 45% of these deaths are people who were in mobile homes. With these statistics in mind, it is easy to see why it is important for engineers to build structures—homes, schools, offices, stores, stadiums, etc.—that can withstand the tremendous forces of tornadoes. Can you come up with a few ideas to design a house that will be super tornado-proof?


Before the Activity

  • Get books and reference materials on tornadoes from the library and/or Internet.
  • Gather materials and make copies of the handouts.

With the Students

  1. Discuss how tornadoes can damage buildings, that is, cause them to crumble, blow off roofs, and be damaged by flying debris. Lead a short brainstorming session asking students to think of ways a tornado might damage a house.
  2. Present the Introduction/Motivation content to the class. This includes the engineering challenge: that students - like engineers - will be designing their own tornado-proof structures. Some ideas for students to use in their structures include: improve roof shingles and the roof design, devise better ways to secure the house walls, anchor the foundation, and use stronger building materials. Encourage students to think of all sorts of other other creative ideas. How about adding sails on a house and using it as a tornado boat! The objective is to be creative, and there are no wrong answers (except designing a lightweight, unfastened to the ground mobile home!).
  3. Organize the class into design teams of two to four students each.
  4. Challenge teams to apply what they know about tornadoes (from previous lessons, activities, life experience, class discussion) to each design on the posterboard a house that is able to stand up to high wind speeds. This is an open-ended design activity, which means there is no one right answer. This is a chance to dream big and use a lot of creativity. Consider including basements for protection and coming up with building structure designs that stay strong in high winds.
    • Have student groups name their engineering firm (for example, Wind–Proof Structural Engineers).
    • Require posters to have building drawings that are labeled to briefly describe materials and how it provides protection from tornadoes.
    • Give teams the Tornado Safety Handout to prompt ideas for safety features to add to their house designs.
    • Require the building drawings to be labeled to briefly describe materials and how they provide protection from tornadoes.
    • Ask teams to use the Fujita Tornado Damage Scale to rate what tornado their structures can withstand and include this rating on the poster.
  1. During the second class period, have each group present its building design to the rest of the class. Require presentations to include a general overview of the building, as well as an explanation of the each labeled design feature on the poster.


Troubleshooting Tips

If students are having trouble, show them some tornado damage and destruction photographs (see References or conduct an online image search). What could they change? Also, consider giving teams time for library or Internet research in order to gather more information for the activity.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Brainstorming: As a class, have students engage in open discussion. Remind them that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is "silly." All ideas should be respectfully heard. Encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have them raise their hands to respond. Write answers on the board. Ask the students:

  • How might a tornado damage a house?

Activity Embedded Assessment

Posters: Have student teams create posters of their designs as directed in Procedures section.

Post-Activity Assessment

Presentations: Have student teams present their building design posters to the class.

Sales Pitch!: Students pretend to be salespeople who are selling their designs to construction companies. Have student teams create advertisements as well as 10-minute sales pitches of their findings to present to the next class. Require groups to include descriptions of the services they can provide and their past design accomplishments.

Pass the Buck: Have students brainstorm ideas to design a new school building that can stand up to the forces of a tornado's high-speed winds. First, assign one student in the group to be the recorder. Then have someone toss out an idea. Next, another person in the group provides an idea that builds on the first. Go around the group in this fashion until all students have put in enough ideas to put together a design. When they are done, have them share their ideas with the class.

Activity Extensions

Invite a structural or civil engineer to discuss building designs that help prevent loss during windstorms and tornadoes.

Have students make 3D models of their tornado-proof homes.

Suggest that students add to their posters safety measures for the entire community. For example: building standards that require all houses to have storm cellars or basements, community storm shelters for mobile home parks or public places, warning sirens, weather alert radio channel, community safety workshops, or banning mobile homes in Tornado Alley.

Websites for further information about tornadoes:









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


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado

Supporting Program

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


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: August 9, 2017