Recipe for a STEAM Lab: Earthquake-safe buildings

I’m a California transplant, so earthquakes are terrifying things to me. Give me a tornado, a snow storm, or a rampaging pack of coyotes and I can deal (okay, maybe not that last one). But the feeling like the Earth is trying to forcible eject me from its back will just never be something I can be chill about. So of course I decided to do a STEAM Lab about “earthquake-safe buildings” – though what we were really experimenting with was the strength and stability of different shapes.

Kids made structures out of toothpicks and marshmallows (though you could choose other building materials) and then put them on top of our Jello planet and gave them a good shake to see if they could withstand our earthquake!

Jello earth, ready to go and covered in plastic wrap “crust.”

What you need:

  • pans of Jello, pre-made and thoroughly chilled. I had 2 8×8 pans for about 60 kids – I would recommend bigger pans if you’ve got them. Making this much Jello took several boxes, so you’ll have to do the math for how much you need for your own kid group.
  • toothpicks
  • marshmallows
  • plastic cling wrap (to put over the top of your Jello earth, to prevent mess. I told the kids this was the Earth’s crust).
  • table covers
  • paper towels
  • Something to build on – my kids build on paper plates, to make transporting their buildings to the “earthquake zone” easier
Shake shake shake…

What you’re investigating:

One basic principal of architecture and design is that some shapes are sturdier than others. Think of the classic balsa wood bridge project. Which shape is less likely to collapse when you use it to build your bridge: triangles, or squares? Why is that?

You can also describe and discuss other structural issues, like the concept of top-heaviness, of balance, of a base being wider or narrower than its top, and more!

Steps for your patrons:

  1. Build a structure out of toothpicks and marshmallows. Think about what shapes you might use to make your building stable.
  2. Place your building on top of the Jello earth.
  3. Use both hands to gently shake the Jello pan back and forth. What do you observe? Is your structure intact? Does it sway? Fall down?
  4. Use what you observed to improve you structure, and then try again. What’s changed?
They altered and improved their structure like eight times!

What was our turnout like?

STEAM Lab is a well-attended program for us. We had more than 70 patrons participating, which is actually on the low-end for us at a program like this. The wonderful thing was that most of our kids and families stayed engaged for the entire hour, making multiple structures and experimenting a lot.

A lot of our kids talked to me about their ideas and their theories. All of them were surprised when I suggested they try to incorporate some triangles into their designs – the balsa wood bridge project apparently hasn’t made it to their schools yet. One area of learning I hadn’t anticipated was the need to be careful and precise – I had lots of kids realize that their slap-dash creations weren’t holding together very well, and they fixed them with more care and attention to detail.

I put the Jello in the freezer for a bit before the program, which helped it to keep its consistency the entire hour – though it was definitely turning to goo by the end!

And no, no one tried to eat, smash, or drop the Jello 😀


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