Science + Makerspace: Earthquake Structure Design Challenge

Learn about how we created an Earthquake Structure Design challenge to bring our makerspace into our 6th grade science curriculum.

In the spring of 2021, the 6th grade science teacher and I began forming a plan.  She had seen the engagement of 6th graders in our afterschool Maker Days program and wanted to find a way to bring that into her classroom so that ALL of our 6th graders could have this opportunity.  We applied for and received a stipend from our school to work on designing the collaboration over the summer.  We both read the book Making Science: Reimagining STEM Education in Middle School and Beyond, and we also collaborated on Google Docs and in Zoom meetings to plan out the project.

Our focus was on building design and creativity into the existing curriculum in her class.  It gave us a chance to introduce our makerspace and the library to our 6th graders early on, making them more comfortable coming into the space and giving me a chance to get to know them better

Science + Makerspace: Earthquake Structure Design Challenge

In the 2021-2022 school year, I began a regular collaboration with our 6th grade science classes to incorporate our makerspace and maker activities into the curriculum.  You can read more about how the teacher and I got things started and set up her classroom makerspace here. We collaborate on three projects together every year: the Lab Safety Device challenge, the weather data collection device (post coming soon!) and this project: creating earthquake-proof structures.  It’s a super fun project that ties in well with science curriculums that cover plate tectonics and seismic activity.

Final project with brainstorm drawing
Final project with brainstorm drawing

Introducing the “Shaky Situation”

We start off this design challenge with a prompt – our students are now engineers and are tasked with designing a prototype of a building that will be near a fault line.  The designs will be “tested” on our DIY earthquake shake table (based off this adorable YouTube tutorial).  The caveat is that each group has a different set of materials to work with, much like engineers in the real world who have to work within budgets and what supplies are available in their location.

These are the supplies we make available to the groups:

  • Group 1: LEGOs 
  • Group 2: K’nex 
  • Group 3: Cardboard and recycled materials
  • Group 4: Strawbees 
  • Group 5: Any of the  materials available 

Of course, there will be groans and complaining at this point, but the diversity of the materials adds a fun element to the challenge.  The goal is to build the best structure with what you have, not the best structure overall.

Students using LEGOs to build an earthquake structure
The LEGO group hard at work

Research and Brainstorming

Before we even let the kids get at the materials, we give them a full class period for research and brainstorming.  They’re given links to several short articles about earthquakes and different structure types.  They then use chart paper to create a sketch of their building design.  After repeating this project a few times, we’ve added some design constraints here.  The project must fit inside a square we’ve made with painters tape on the shake table (this doesn’t have to be super exact – I think ours was about 15” x 15”).  Also, structures have to be at least five “stories” tall – each story is represented by three inches.  The first year we had some super wide low structures, so we wanted to give these constraints to focus students more on how to build tall buildings.

Students working on project with K'nex and cardboard
One group could choose from any of the materials available in the makerspace.

Building the prototypes

We allow for two class periods for students to build their structures.  We usually do this in the classroom and common space, but if you have a larger makerspace that can accommodate a full class this project would be a great time to bring them in.  You’ll see many students “testing” our their projects using chairs on wheels or shaking the structures themselves.  It’s fun to watch the design process in action here, as many projects go through several iterations and end up quite different by the final prodcut.

Final project ready for testing
Final project on the shake table

Shaking things up!

For our final day of the project, we break out the shake table. One at a time, we tape down each group’s project to the table, and start with light tremors eventually moving up to a once-in-a-century level earthquake.  The teacher does a great job here of talking over the projects with the students about real world connections.  Some of the structures will fall, but students learn a lot throughout this process.

After we’ve tested all the structures, students fill out an individual self reflection about the project and what they learned.  This is what the teacher uses as far as assessment.  We didn’t want concern about grades to get in the way of creativity, so students aren’t graded on how their project fared on the shake table.

Students on floor creating earthquake structure with recycled materials
The Recycled Materials group

Replicating this project at your school

This post is to serve as an example of how we created an Earthquake Structure Design Challenge at our school – yours might look different and that’s perfectly okay.  This challenge can be easily adapted to different materials, shorter or longer time frames, etc.  Our classes were 6th graders, but a challenge like this could also work well with upper elementary or high schoolers.


Have you ever hosted an earthquake structure design challenge at your school?  How did it go?

Learn how to host an earthquake structure design challenge in your makerspace