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Daybreak Fifth Graders Design, Test Building Models for Earthquake Safety

Dec 08, 2015 01:34PM ● Published by Julie Slama

By Julie Slama

South Jordan - They may not be modern skyscrapers, but 28 fifth graders at Daybreak Elementary had the opportunity to test their four-story buildings during an earthquake simulation.

Using mostly straws, pipe cleaners, marshmallows and popsicle sticks, small groups of students spent several hours on Nov. 13 creating their buildings that had to pass several tests on an earthquake table and withstand 10 grams of weight. During the process, they had to collaborate with their teammates and be able to adapt their plans if the original design failed.

Before they got to this point, students first had to learn about the engineering process and fill out a packet that included researching the project and finding a need.

“Their research will consist of the science of earthquakes,” fifth-grade teacher Diane Holland said. “They will learn how faults move, the different waves earthquakes make and how it affects the land. They will also learn about the different destruction earthquakes and faults can make.”

Holland said she began the project because, while teaching about earthquakes, she had students ask if their school was safe during an earthquake. 

Fifth-grade student Erika Bond remembers Holland telling them that they should be safe if they go under their desks for protection during an earthquake. 

Holland said that although the ceiling tiles will most likely fall, they shouldn’t harm students because they are made out of lightweight materials. The lights should sway and the glass windows should remain intact, Holland told students.

“We learned that earthquakes can’t kill us, but the buildings can, so we had to be thoughtful about how we’d stabilize our buildings when we designed them,” fifth grader Tayla Milkovich said.

Holland then asked them to identify a need and sketch out design plans. 

“Once the group has decided on a design, they sketch it out using pictures and labels. I look over their designs, but I do not give them any construction plans. I want them to experience what real engineers face. Many times, they will need to redesign their project to be successful. I want my students to keep persevering in everything they do. They need to trying to improve their ideas, their learning and themselves every day. We welcome mistakes in my classroom because that is when we do our best learning,” she said.

During the design of his group’s project, fifth grader Spencer Henderson said they realized it wouldn’t be stable.

“We realized it wouldn’t hold the weight of a sand bag, so we changed our idea,” he said. “We looked at the supplies we had and thought of what else we could do to make our building more sturdy.”

Classmate Lauren Gilbride and her group realized that when they put three smaller coffee-stir straws inside a normal drinking straw, it would make their beams sturdier and also give it a little sway.

“We wanted our beams to be more stable, but also have a little flexibility so in an earthquake, it can bend, but not so much it would fall or break down,” she said.

Once groups completed their buildings, they tested them on Nov. 16 on a shake table that Holland’s husband constructed with $75 of their own money. To pass the test, the students’ buildings must stand for 30 seconds during a shake that resembles a small earthquake. Then, they are tested for medium and extreme earthquakes. Afterward, Holland asked students to review their processes and identify ways for improvement.

“I want them to learn the science behind earthquakes. They do need to know how earthquakes are a part of their life living here in Utah, and how earthquakes change the land,” she said.

Through the project and learning about the engineering process, Holland also hoped to spark an interest in students learning about the engineering field, as well as all the math and science careers.

Fifth grader Katie Mackay said that she has appreciated learning about what it takes to be an engineer and is thinking about becoming a process engineer, reviewing the best and most efficient ways in designs and methods.

“We all came together with our ideas in designing this building and realized that together, we could make it work,” she said about her teammates, Paula Gonzales and Jordan Benson.

In another corner of the room, Taygen Pounds and her teammates carefully constructed their building.

“I learned building the building is harder than I thought it would be,” Taygen said.

Her classmate, Kaleb Snarr, agreed since he said he found the project “nerve-wracking” as everything didn’t go exactly as planned. Still, he added he was having fun. 

Across the room, Gabe Cook echoed the sentiment that even though his team’s straws kept bending while they were constructing the building, he was enjoying it.

“It’s a fun project and we get to do it with friends,” he said.

Holland said that her love of science and the desire to include STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in her curriculum helped her decide to incorporate this project in the landforms unit that is part of the fifth-grade state core curriculum.

“I love learning about the science in my world. I don’t like just doing worksheets. I love teaching with hands-on lessons and the creativity of it. It gives the students a chance to use their senses to learn,” she said.

Parents also were on hand as students created their buildings. Marthe Henderson, who has had three students in Holland’s classes through the years, said she appreciates the hands-on learning.

“My kids are much more engaged and are learning through doing and simulating real-life experiences,” Henderson said. “They are having so much more fun while learning.”

Principal Doree Strauss said that through this project, students would understand and remember the engineering process.

“This is a great teacher who makes learning come to life,” she said.  

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