Build a Better Wall


How can we design buildings to withstand an earthquake? This activity uses simple materials and gives learners a chance to experiment with structures that can withstand an earthquake. Two optional activities explore building damage by subjecting models to ground vibration on a small shake table.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This activity could be done with introductory learners from late elementary through secondary or even early college. Can be used in conjunction with a Earth science unit or as a practical example of engineering design in an engineering or physical science unit. It can also work for informal education or public outreach venues as a demonstration or interactive.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Learners should know what earthquakes are.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity can largely stand alone once learners know what earthquakes are. However in a larger unit on earthquakes it should probably come later when the topic moves from understanding what earthquakes are to how they affect our society and address steps we can take to mitigate earthquake risk. It works well immediately after Earthquake Hazard Maps & Liquefaction. Also works well in conjunction with BOSS Model: Building Oscillation Seismic Simulation and Base Isolation for Earthquake Resistance.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Learners will be able to:

  • Recognize some of the structural elements of a building.
  • Describe how the horizontal and vertical structural elements carry the horizontal and vertical loads of a building.
  • Describe how diagonal braces, shear walls, and rigid connections provide paths for the horizontal load resulting from an earthquake.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Design shear bracing for a wall to help it withstand earthquake-like shaking.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Working in groups
  • Using physical models

Description and Teaching Materials


See attached file for educator notes, NGSS alignment, links to supporting resources, and student exercise.
Build a Better Wall Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 1.5MB Apr2 19)

Supporting presentation/audiovisual

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • It does take a bit of time to assemble the materials; however once it is done, the models can last for many years.
  • For classrooms, models with two craft sticks on a side work fine. For informal education settings (ex. ranger talks) or as a teacher demonstration it can be helpful to have larger models with three sticks to a side.
  • Works well with learner groups of 4-5.
  • A great entry into the activity is simply to present the model (wobbly and near collapse) to your learners, give them the small packet of possible "engineering" materials, and say "you have five minutes to make this house safer for your family to live it -- go!". This gets the learners highly invested in the activity and more interested in any load path discussion that may come later.
  • These paired USGS videos on earthquake-vulnerable building and possible retrofit steps can work well in the exercise wrap-up. These particular videos were made in response to the 1999 Turkey earthquake that killed over 16,000 people. However the exact type of architecture depicted in the videos is common throughout Asia and some other parts of the world.


The student worksheet, if used, serves as the summative assessment for the activity. However, some instructors may choose to just use this activity as a less formal activity. If that is the case or if one is working with an informal audience, learner understanding can be gathered from questions to and discussions with small groups or the whole group.

References and Resources