Building for the Big One

The Tech Museum of Innovation, 201 South Market St. San Jose, CA 95113
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Lesson/Lesson Plan
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.



This lesson plan details a Design Challenge in which students build and test structures while learning about the earthquakes that shake them. It is designed as a review or culmination of an Earthquake unit of study. The lesson plan allows teachers to connect back to previous lessons. The Tech Museum of Innovation also suggests that the lesson might be used as a form of introduction to a unit about earthquakes. The lesson would then be used to determine students' prior knowledge to set the stage for the design challenge. This resource often mentions the effects of tectonic plates on earthquake location. Grade 4 curriculum does not include tectonic plates in their earth science curriculum. Tectonic plate information is included in the lesson as a resource for the teacher.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Middle School
  • Grade 4
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

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

Clarification Statement: Examples of solutions could include designing an earthquake resistant building and improving monitoring of volcanic activity.

Assessment Boundary: Assessment is limited to earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The lesson plan lists educational expectations in a range from Grade 4 through Grade 8. Teachers might modify vocabulary found in student directions, review math concepts of centimeters and discuss types of soil found in San Jose, California, based on Grade 4 students prior knowledge. As a prelude to the actual engineering design and challenge, students could discuss soil type information specific to their area, how soil types might impact building design choices, then determine ( with input from an engineer) which building material types would be most effective. Students could then illustrate/diagram building types and write descriptions in science journals explaining how their solutions could reduce earthquake impact.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
In this activity, students construct a model of a structure using craft sticks and glue, then test how this "designed system" functions during a simulated earthquake, an interaction with the ground .Materials available for the Design Challenge are the same for all student teams, and are used in the same quantity. Students test, revise, and then retest their structures to improve their ability to withstand "earthquakes". Teachers might guide students to brainstorm what other types of materials could be used in a design and give reasons for their observations. Extra testing sessions could follow, if time permitted. During the pre-testing class discussion, teachers could determine students' prior knowledge by asking which features might affect building stability and why, as opposed to telling them which features they need to emphasize.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students would discuss how natural hazards cannot be eliminated, since earthquakes often cause building collapse or damage. They could focus on ways that the impact of the earthquake could be lessened, referring to design and material components of their buildings. Class visits from structural engineers and/or architects might assist students in correlating their structure design with impact of earthquake simulation. Class visits from professionals would enhance students' awareness not just about earthquake damage, but about proactive decisions that might stabilize structures. An engineer could also address how properties of soil might affect the building design.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource was not designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, but can be used to build towards it using the suggestions provided below.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
To address the idea that cause and effect relationships can be used to explain change, students could document changes as a "before and after look" while their 'natural phenomenon" ( shake table activity) occurred. This documentation could be in the form of an illustration, photos, or with video. Students could compare/contrast their evidence of changes with those of real-life photos, videos, etc. They could also document ( Example- graph) evidence of changes that occur dependent upon the severity of the earthquake, creating their own rubric for the graph. ( Ex. whole structure destroyed; number of materials destroyed or unusable for future testing.)

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: This lesson addresses each aspect of the NGSS dimensions. It allows students an opportunity to take part in a hands-on design challenge as they attempt to limit the impact of a natural event, an earthquake.They are also able to improve and redesign their structures, taking stability features into account.

  • Instructional Supports: This lesson engages students in meaningful scenarios that reflect real world practices of science and engineering. Its' makeup allows teachers to provide differentiation of instruction for diverse learners as hands-on activities and graphic organizer components (Example- diagrams, illustrations) are included. The handouts presented to students give them explicit directions for type of materials to be used in their design, with a constraints rubric included ( Ex. Building height) They make use of a materials budget and soil analysis. The directions for assembling a shake table, while detailed, could be used by the students to create shake tables with supervision. The assembly of a shake table could be included as a prior lesson.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The lesson offers the teacher an opportunity for formative assessment during class discussion time. Students' prior knowledge, both of earthquake vocabulary and features of building stability will be based on their oral responses. A student research station is made available and utilizes soil and fault maps to assist teams. Students could write reflections in their science journals to include the cause/effect cross-cutting effects of the lesson, list steps followed in design/redesign, and possibly define earthquake vocabulary that students used in their challenge.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This resource does not include an interactive component.