Quake Shake: Beyond Toothpicks and Marshmallows

Sean Musselman
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , 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.


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3 (1 reviews)

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4 Great Idea

This is a great idea. I think that this lesson has lots of applications and helps students understand why it is important to know the processes and causes of weathering, erosion and deposition.


This engineering activity (Lesson 3) is part of a unit on Earth’s Changing Surface, highlighting earthquakes and how humans can prepare and protect themselves from the forces of nature. The unit follows the 5E model where the students are engaged from the opening phenomenon of observing a video of buildings swaying in an earthquake to the evaluate stage where students have an opportunity to use the engineering design process to create an earthquake resistant structure that will withstand a shake test using the least expensive materials available. Students will be using what they have learned about earthquake waves and structures as they work with partners to evaluate relevant design features that must be considered when building an earthquake resistant wall.  To develop this lesson plan, the author investigated the work of structural engineers to create lessons that strengthen science and engineering connections and engage students in real-world problem solving.The URL of the resource gives an overview of the entire lesson sequence.  It is important to note the Blog Post Overview http://bit.ly/MussScienceEarthquakeEngineering contains helpful videos of student investigations while the linked engineering lesson (Lesson 3) starts on page 18. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Lv2a0RE1IQSE3jSmeEUUlUoII-79iCzR3lRaWwz-tKE/edit#heading=h.4umcejx32cu4


Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 4
  • Grade 5
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

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.

Clarification Statement: none

Assessment Boundary: none

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Students plan in their journals and then carry out tests of several earthquake-resistant design features of a given model structure in which seismic waves are controlled and structure failure points are considered to identify which features need to be improved. Students then apply the results of tests to redesign a model or prototype. As an extension students could be given time to generate additional original design features.

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
Some of the videos included with this lesson may not be appropriate for younger students, therefore it is recommended by the author to view this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qLPHp_2Zls with the students where they can observe the pattern in which the buildings are moving back and forth. Also a video of a testing facility https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSwjkG3nv1c with a view outside as well as inside during a quake test would be useful for students to observe how engineers create and test structures. Through partner and group discussions, the teacher should check for understanding that this movement is the result of wave energy moving through Earth’s rock. This video of the lesson https://bsciencecenter.wordpress.com/?s=earthquake+&searchbutton=go%21 emphasizes that the goal is to make the wall as 'resistant' to earthquakes as possible and reduce the impact to the buildings. Students document results in their journals after each earthquake shake test and compare which solutions worked best using the least amount of money and weight.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students have the opportunity to construct an understanding of how buildings respond to earthquakes by changing where they place their ‘building materials’ to reinforce the wall during the ‘earthquake shake’. After careful reflection of what worked and what didn’t work, students should have an opportunity to discuss with their peers to predict what would happen by changing or moving the reinforcement materials. Students should also be encouraged to share their thinking in their science notebook/journal as they work with the science and engineering practices.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Students are given the opportunity to try various arrangements of the reinforcements to make the structure better able to withstand earthquake shaking. Although the criteria and constraints for this engineering design are clearly implied, it is suggested that the teacher use the words 'criteria' and 'constraints' when viewing the student slideshow that describes the engineering activity. The criteria for success: Create a three-story structure that can resist earthquake damage. The constraints are keeping the costs and the weight of the structure as low as possible.

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
To reinforce this disciplinary core idea, the interactive activity found at https://eduweb.com/portfolio/bridgetoclassroom/engineeringfull.html will also engage students in the understanding that although humans cannot eliminate earthquakes, engineers can take steps to reinforce bridges to reduce the impact of an earthquake.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
After trials and reflections students will write about the strengths and limitations of each reinforcement/substructure: rigid connections (gussets), shear walls, and diagonal braces (cross members), as well as how the placement of these reinforcements affects the earthquake shake test.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Students have the opportunity to blend 3 dimensional learning as they investigate how shear walls, rigid connections (gussets), and diagonal braces (cross-members) strengthen a structure to carry forces resulting from earthquake shaking. Throughout the lesson, students are given the opportunity to make sense of the phenomenon and act as engineers to design solutions to the problem. Students also use math and ELA skills as they analyze costs and weight of their structures and record the results of their tests.

  • Instructional Supports: This unit follows a sequence of learning where students are first introduced to the understanding of Earth’s surface and what causes earthquakes to the final lesson where students are given the opportunity to engage in authentic scenarios of reinforcing a wall to reduce the effects of an earthquake. This resource includes lesson summaries with essential questions and big ideas for each lesson, teacher’s guide, classroom slideshow and data collection sheets. Students are provided opportunities to express and represent their ideas in their journals or included students notebooks, through discussion with peers, as well as through investigations. The student notebook/journal can be a valuable tool for students to share their thinking as they work with the science and engineering practices.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: This lesson plan gives the teacher resources that will help to support student progress in all three dimensions as they make sense of a phenomenon and design a solution. The author included guiding questions as well as videos of actual student investigations to support teachers as they assess student learning. It is important to note that teachers use the included guiding questions to determine the students' content knowledge in connection with the science practices. Extension activities are included in the evaluate stage of the Learning Sequence Chart. A student generated rubric is recommended.

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