Students learn how engineers construct buildings to withstand damage from earthquakes by building their own structures with toothpicks and marshmallows. Students test how earthquake-proof their buildings are by testing them on an earthquake simulated in a pan of Jell-O®.
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 Standard Network (ASN), a project of JES & Co. (www.jesandco.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.
Click on the standard groupings to explore this hierarchy as it applies to this document.
- Colorado: Science
- a. 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)  ...show
- b. Develop and communicate an evidence based scientific explanation around one or more factors that change Earth's surface (Grade 5)  ...show
- Common Core State Standards for Mathematics: Math
- 1. Draw points, lines, line segments, rays, angles (right, acute, obtuse), and perpendicular and parallel lines. Identify these in two-dimensional figures. (Grade 4)  ...show
- 5. Relate volume to the operations of multiplication and addition and solve real world and mathematical problems involving volume. (Grade 5)  ...show
- 4. Classify two-dimensional figures in a hierarchy based on properties. (Grade 5)  ...show
- International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
- Next Generation Science Standards: Science
- 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)  ...show
- 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)  ...show
- Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural Earth processes on humans. (Grade 4)  ...show
- 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.
- 30 toothpicks
- 30 miniature marshmallows
- Earthquake Journal
- 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 the Jell-O® in advance)
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
- 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.
- 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.
- Show students the display model of a structure.
- 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).
- Distribute 30 toothpicks and 30 marshmallows to each student. Explain that the Earth has limited resources, so therefore engineers also have limited resources when building structures.
- 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 rules for their buildings. You can use one or more of the following rules or create your own: buildings must be at least two toothpick levels high, buildings must contain at least one triangle, buildings must contain at least one square, or buildings must contain one triangle and square.)
- Place the structures on the pans of Jell-O®.
- 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.
- After students have tested their structures, have them redesign and rebuild them and finally test them again. What can they do to make it stronger? Did it topple? Should they make the base bigger? Make the structure taller or shorter? Let students design and rebuild as many times as the class period allows.
- Have students draw and label the shapes in their designs (cube, triangle, etc).
- Have students pretend that they are engineers who work for a civil engineering company. Instruct them to make a flyer to convince their company to let them design a better building or structure.
- Have students finish their journals,as directed in the Assessment section.
Activity Embedded Assessment
- For higher grades, give students more requirements and constraints for their buildings.
Jessica Todd, Melissa Straten, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Janet Yowell
© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.
Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
Last modified: September 1, 2015