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K'NEX Earthquake Engineering Program for 4th & 6th Grade Students

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The Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER) and nees@berkeley, an equipment site of the George E. Brown, Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation at the University of California, Berkeley, developed an outreach program about earthquake engineering available to 4th and 6th grade classrooms from schools in close proximity to their laboratories. The activities are designed to (1) introduce the students to earthquake and engineering concepts, (2) have the students explore earthquake-resistant design through building structures using K'Nex then testing their performance on an earthquake simulator, and (3) show how these topics are researched through a visit to an engineering laboratory where innovative engineering designs are tested.

Earthquake Engineering Component

This educational program is for 4th grade classrooms and was implemented nees@berkeley laboratory and Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER) at UC Berkeley.  During the 2013-2014 school year with support from Community Resources for Science, the program was improved to provide documentation and lesson plans, while also better integrating with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS); The updated program:

  • utilizes new hands-on, collaborative learning experiences and a design challenge that teaches students the engineering design process for an earthquake resistant building.
  • includes two 90-minute classroom visits by UC Berkeley Engineering Student Instructors who lead the learning experience by providing instruction, demonstrations, and materials for the hands-on activities.
  • integrates engineering skill development as described in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS)
  • offers an optional field trip to the earthquake engineering laboratory at UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station to see engineering in action (bus provided)
  • provides materials and lesson plans to support independent teaching of this unit in the future

The NGSS for fourth grade specifically suggests designing earthquake resistant buildings as a way to meet standard 4-ESS3-2: Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural earth processes on humans. This new program will enable teachers to meet this and other standards in the NGSS as well as supporting the current California State Science Standards for fourth grade. The program consists of three distinct activites:

Learning Experience #1: (90 minutes in classroom)

  • Introduction to Earthquake Engineering and related vocabulary
  • Discussion of building elements
  • Hands-on Design Element Testing in six design teams
  • Sharing of unique data and conclusions

Learning Experience #2: (90 minutes in classroom)

  • Design Challenge: Design, Construction, Testing, and Analysis
  • Presentation of Test Results by six design teams
  • Design Decision Discussion
  • Communication of Classroom Design Solution

Field Trip: (90 minutes at labs plus travel time)

  • Tour of Earthquake Engineering Laboratories at UC Berkeley's Richmond Field Station
  • Viewing videos of laboratory tests
  • Make-Your-Own-Earthquake jumping activity
  • Small Shaking Table Demonstration with Plexiglass house (if available)

Learning Objectives and Standards

This program aims to achieve the following goals for the participating 4th and 6th grade elementary school students:

  • Foster enthusiasm in the science of earthquakes and earthquake engineering
  • Expose students to earthquakes in a hands-on, interactive, and exciting environment
  • Activate student interest in this field of science (earthquake engineering) while developing their curiosity and encouraging creativity

The program attempts to achieve its goals for students by incorporating instruction and assessment of the following learning objectives (updated 2013-2014):

  1. Learn what the engineering process is, and how earthquake engineers reduce the natural hazards of earthquakes.
  2. Understand where earthquake faults exist and how earthquakes are measured.      
  3. Explore how earthquake shaking affects buildings.      
  4. Discover what building elements affect building stability and help structures resist earthquake shaking.        
  5. Engineer a model building to withstand earthquake shaking on a simple shake table.    
  6. Compare multiple solutions to an engineering design problem with success criteria and design limitations.      
  7. Involves students in an activity that requires them to think critically, be creative, work together, develop problem solving skills, and present findings.
  8. Know that earthquakes are a natural hazard and engineers help design buildings to reduce damage.
  9. Generate and compare multiple solutions to enable building to resist earthquakes.
  10. Understand that study of failure mechanisms can be used to improve design.
  11. Be introduced to the engineering design process and skills, including defining design problems, collaboratively producing data with fair tests, using evidence to compare solutions, and communicating evidence-based recommendations.

The program currently targets 4th and 6th grade to align with the following CA science standards.  

Related California State Standards:

4th - Earth Science

There are slow and rapid processes that change the Earth (erosion, landslide, volcanoes, earthquakes)

4th - Investigation and Experimentation

a. differentiate observation from inference (interpretation), and know that scientists’ explanations come partly from what they observe and partly from how they interpret their observations. c. formulate and justify predictions based on cause and effect relationships. d. conduct multiple trials to test a prediction and draw conclusions about the relationships between results and predictions. f. follow a set of written instructions for a scientific investigation.

6th grade

Our program has direct applicability to their full earthquake unit (6th Grade CA State Standards for Plate Tectonics and Earth's Structure). The presentation portion of our program reinforces many of these earth science concepts while also introducing the concept of engineering to extend learning in this area.  

Related Next Generation Science Standards proposed for California:

4th - Earth Systems: Processes that Shape the Earth

4-ESS2-2 Analyze and interpret data from maps to describe patterns of Earth’s features. (Clarification: Maps can include topographic maps of Earth land and ocean floor, as well as maps of the locations of mountains, continental boundaries, volcanoes, and earthquakes.) 4-ESS3-2: Generate and compare multiple solutions to reduce the impacts of natural Earth processes on humans. (Clarification: Examples of solutions could include designing an earthquake resistant building and improving monitoring of volcanic activity.)

Engineering Design

3-5-ETS1-1 Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want the includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time or cost. 3-5-ETS1-2 Generate and compare multiple possible solutions to a problem based on how well each is likely to meet the criteria and constraints of the problem. 3-5-ETS1-3 Plan and carry out fair tests in which the variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

Material List

See lesson plans for details.

Links and Resources

General information about the program conducted at UC Berkeley can be found at:


Teachers from participating schools are asked to complete an online or paper evaluation form after their class has participated in the program. Results of these evaluations are used to assess the program. The assessments given to the K-12 teachers of the student participants are used to improve the activities for future participants, to enhance each activity's integration with the K-12 curriculum standards, and to provide new resources that supplement each activity for teachers. Questions in the form include both formative evaluations to find areas for improvement, as well as summative assessment to get an estimate of the learning outcomes acquired by the participating students. For example, the evaluation form that asks teachers to estimate what percentage of their students retained each of the activity's learning objectives. In addition, they rated each of the program elements so the program coordinator and instructors know which elements need future development work and improvement. Repeated participation of teachers over many years, as well as a regular yearly increase of participation requests from new teachers, shows that the teachers find this program to be a useful learning activity. Teacher assessment form can be found at: (for 2012 and earlier) and at (for 2013-2013 school year)


Teachers can easily integrate supplemental writing, measuring, drawing, vocabulary or other student assignments with this program as well. Some ideas for these are found in the worksheets developed by the program, which can be found at the links above.

Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  • Heidi Tremayne (Faison) (2012), "K'NEX Earthquake Engineering Program for 4th & 6th Grade Students,"

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