Earthquake Science Project

Barbara Mascareno
Earthquake models using household items

This science project will teach students how forces pull or push against each other to create an earthquake. Any student in elementary school, from kindergarten to sixth grade, will enjoy learning how earthquakes happen with this project.

Investigating the Forces in Earthquakes

Earthquakes are devastating natural events, and they destroy property with strong seismic waves. In preventing buildings from collapsing, many engineers build a structural framework to withstand the intense seismic waves.

Materials

To create your 'buildings,' start by gathering the following materials:

  • Two 16-cm diameter styrofoam plates
  • Miniature marshmallows
  • 6 or more 2-cm craft sticks
  • 6 or more 1-cm craft sticks
  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Four books (about the same width)

Instructions for Sturdy Framework

Start by building a sturdy framework for your building.

Sturdy and unsturdy framework
  1. Set aside a few miniature marshmallows.
  2. Turn over the styrofoam plates.
  3. Punch four holes on top of each plate with a pencil.
  4. Start building by using one or two marshmallows for the bottom of a 2-cm craft stick.
  5. Place it on top of the hole you made of the styrofoam plate.
  6. Let the marshmallow set gently on the plate and continue with the other three 2-cm craft sticks.
  7. Make sure to let each craft stick set as this is the foundation of the frame for the building.
  8. Repeat with additional craft sticks.
  9. Use as many craft sticks as you'd like and continue building.

Instructions for Unstable Framework

Use miniature marshmallows to build a similar framework as the stable framework above.

  1. Turn over the styrofoam plate face down.
  2. Begin building by using one or two miniature marshmallows for the 1-cm craft stick.
  3. Place it gently on top of the styrofoam plate as in the previous section.
  4. Continue to build with as many sticks and marshmallows as you'd like.

Simulating of Forces in Earthquakes

The world is put together in a dynamic myriad of pieces like a jigsaw puzzle. Parts of the puzzle are called continental plates that interweave around the globe. When extreme forces collide, slide or shear upon each other, earthquakes begin to emerge.

Once you've completed your sturdy and unsturdy framework, it's time to simulate earthquake forces. This simulation will look at three types of forces in earthquakes: compression, tension and shear forces.

earthquake model
  1. Collect four books with similar widths, and place them on a sturdy surface.
  2. Face two books side by side and lay another set of books on top.
  3. Place one of the building constructions in between the books (start with the building with 2-cm sticks).
  4. Move the books side by side as using shear forces.
  5. Next, collide the books gently simulating compression forces.
  6. Finally, pull apart the books to see what happens to the building creation as showing tension forces.
  7. Repeat for the building with 1-cm craft sticks.
  8. For each type of force, record your observations. How does each type of force affect each building differently?

What Happened?

Were you able to observe which type of building framework was able to withstand different forces? In simulating the effects of compression, shear, and tension, you might have noticed that the 1-cm thick building framework did not hold in place well for any simulation. You may have also noticed that the structure tended to fall a different way based on the type of force that was being exerted. With compression, the structure tended to fall to one side. With tension, the building probably fell over into the middle or was torn apart. With shear stress, the structure probably twisted or ripped apart before it fell.

Challenge

Now that you've learned about the how forces in an earthquake affect various buildings, take the lab a step further.

  • Can you design a structure that withstands all of these simulated forces? Build three more structures using the same materials and test them out.
  • Research real earthquakes and see how architects design buildings to survive the seismic waves an earthquake produces.
  • Can you design a simulation that is larger or more accurately represents the force to scale?

Building Framework Safe Enough for Earthquakes

Of course, depending on the amount of force you were exerting, you might see variations in your results. However, an unstable framework does not offer safety during an earthquake. In fact, engineers design seismic-safe buildings, housing, and highways to withstand the intense, surface seismic waves. Remember too, however destructive earthquakes may be, they are also part of what constitutes various landforms around the world.

Earthquake Science Project