Seismic Design Competition

Eric Hultgren, Wheaton North High School (IL)
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

Resources in this top level collection a) must have scored Exemplary or Very Good in all five review categories, and must also rate as “Exemplary” in at least three of the five categories. The five categories included in the peer review process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see

This page first made public: Jun 7, 2017


This project is a modified version of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute Student Leadership Council's Seismic Design Competition. This project has teams of students work to research, plan, build and analyze a cost-effective model building that is designed for seismic loading and has architectural aesthetic appeal. The models are subjected to multiple ground motions, which represent different return period earthquakes. Video of the project can be seen here:



This project is designed for a high school Geology or Earth Science course to promote the study of earthquake engineering.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

-Students must have a basic understanding of tectonics and how buildings respond to forces applied during earthquakes.
-Students should have exposure to concepts related to kinematic analysis and engineering methods used to resist seismic loading.
-Students must be able to take measurements and make simple calculations.
-Students must be able to use small tools used to make models (saws, glue guns, etc.).

How the activity is situated in the course

This can be used as a culminating project at the end of a course or as a stand-alone exercise at the end of unit of study. Given this project's topic, it is best suited in a course after students have learned about tectonics. As presented, this project takes approximately ten 45-minute class periods with the first two days for research and design, five days for building the models, two days to test the structures and one day for analysis.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

By the end of the activity, students should be able to:
-define "kinematic analysis"
-describe potential methods used in building design to resist seismic loading.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students will:
-evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.
-design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students will:
-take measurements and analyze data in order to determine the relationship between variables.
-demonstrate/describe safe laboratory practices.
-use scientific language in discourse and writing

Description and Teaching Materials

Students will begin this project by reviewing the key points of the rules, objectives and schedule. The introduction is completed in-class but they may need additional background information about earthquake engineering. This background information can be assigned as a video to watch outside of class. There are five key components to this project.

#1 - Shake Table Plan
Any method used to produce a controlled "earthquake" will work. Acceleration measurements (g) were taken by using the SPARKVUE app on an iPhone that was attached to the top of each building. The designs for the shake table used in this project are attached. Video of the shake table in action can be seen here -

#2 - Seismic Design Competition Rules, Schedule and Grading Rubric
This document includes the objectives, problem statement, student rubric, description of the motion tests, scoring, structural model rules, basics of building, schedule and teacher's rubric. This is printed and distributed to each member of each of the competing teams. It is best to spend some time reviewing the rubric and model rules with the students.

#3 - Score Sheet Template
This is the spreadsheet that is used to "judge" the designs. The spreadsheet is formatted to calculate all values. Cells that require instructor input are highlighted in yellow. The tabs along the bottom cover all of the various types of income and expenses. There are tabs for six competing teams.

#4 - Proposal Phase One: Pre-Build Research and Design
This assignment provides the competing teams with a structured method to discuss and plan the design of their model.

#5 - Proposal Phase Two: Post-Build Revenue and Analysis
This assignment is designed to have the teams get together AFTER all of the buildings have been tested with the shake table. Students should use this assignment to discuss the team results and analyze the strength and weaknesses of their design.
Shake Table Design (Acrobat (PDF) 172kB May31 17)
Seismic Design Competition Official Rules, Schedule and Rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 1.6MB May31 17)
Score Sheet Template (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 601kB May31 17)
Proposal Phase One: Pre-Build Research and Design (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 130kB May31 17)
Proposal Phase Two: Post-Build Revenue and Analysis (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 15kB May31 17)

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity can be made as simple or complex as needed. An effort has been made to emphasis planning and analysis. It is helpful to provide feedback to students throughout the design and building process and the scoring sheet is a good way for students to see the costs associated with their design choices. Constraints to consider:
- availability of a shake table
-time to plan, build, shake and analyze


The teams' proposals will be completed in two phases. PHASE ONE - Pre-Build: Research and Design. PHASE TWO - Post-Build: Revenue and Analysis. Each section of the proposals is assessed using a 5-level scale. The criteria to earn a 5 in each section are listed below.
5 = Extraordinary
4 = Mastery
3 = Proficient
2 = Developing
1 = Beginning
0 = No Evidence
Because this is a competition, teams earn points based on their final annual revenue. The 1st place team will earn the maximum points and the last place team will earn the minimum.

References and Resources

Past Competition Video

Sample of past research and design background informational video