Earthquake resistant design

Lawrence L. Malinconico
Lafayette College
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In groups of two, the students design and build a three-story building to be as earthquake resistant as possible. Using an in-house designed and built shaker table, we load each floor of the building based on area (to simulate actual structural loading) and shake them to see which designs last the longest and why.

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General science course in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences. Used by both major and non-majors (for lab science requirement).

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Understand earthquakes causes and effects, types of vibration, magnitude, amplitude

How the activity is situated in the course

a three-week long assignment in the laboratory portion of the course...requires out-of-class work time


Content/concepts goals for this activity

This exercise requires an understanding of seismic wave motion before the exercise can begin. Due to limitations with the home-made shaker table, the design of the building can focus primarily on shear wave motion. Despite the limitations of the shaking, the students must research and develop an understanding of structural designs that can minimize the effects of the vibrations on the structure.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

This really is a higher order exercise since it requires translating an understanding of seismic wave motion to designs that will minimize the effects of the shaking. The best designs result when the team researches the concepts of earthquake-resistant design for structures and applies one or more of the concepts to their simple structure.

Other skills goals for this activity

Time management and working as a team are skills that can help make the result more successful. As in any class, we have students who wait until the last minute and their designs reflect that effort. There is also a writing assignment with the exercise that is worth 30% of the total assignment. The students are asked to reflect on why they designed the building the way they did. Thoughtful design and creativity are also rewarded.

Description of the activity/assignment

After having learned about earthquakes in class, through readings and earlier lab assignments, students (in groups of two) are asked to design and construct (using balsa wood, string, paper and glue) a three-story building designed to minimize the effects of shear-wave vibrations that occur during an earthquake. The students are required to research the design concepts on their own and most of the construction work occurs outside of the regular laboratory period. The structures are tested for strength a week before the earthquake occurs - can they support the required load for each floor? On earthquake day, the buildings a tested for a "design earthquake" and then each group is given the opportunity to see how "large" and earthquake their structure can withstand - both in terms of frequency and amplitude variations. In addition to building the structure, each team has to submit a paper reflecting on why they designed and built the structure the way they did.

Determining whether students have met the goals

An evaluation sheet is give to the students with the assignment. It is included with the submitted materials here.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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