ALEX Lesson Plan


Earthquakes in the Classroom

You may save this lesson plan to your hard drive as an html file by selecting "File", then "Save As" from your browser's pull down menu. The file name extension must be .html.

  This lesson provided by:  
Author:Daniel Schaeffel
System: Hoover City
School: Hoover City Board Of Education
The event this resource created for:ASTA
  General Lesson Information  
Lesson Plan ID: 34512


Earthquakes in the Classroom


Students will learn how engineers construct buildings to withstand damage from earthquakes by building their own structures with toothpicks and marshmallows. Students test how earthquake-proof their buildings are through an earthquake simulation using a pan of Jell-O.

This lesson was adapted from Teach Engineering.

This lesson results from a collaboration between the Alabama State Department of Education and ASTA.

 Associated Standards and Objectives 
Content Standard(s):
SC2015 (2015)
Grade: 4
17 ) Formulate and evaluate solutions to limit the effects of natural Earth processes on humans (e.g., designing earthquake, tornado, or hurricane-resistant buildings; improving monitoring of volcanic activity).*

NAEP Framework
NAEP Statement::
E4.11: Humans depend on their natural and constructed environment. Humans change environments in ways that can either be beneficial or detrimental for themselves and other organisms.

Unpacked Content
Scientific And Engineering Practices:
Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
Crosscutting Concepts: Cause and Effect
Disciplinary Core Idea: Earth's Systems
Evidence Of Student Attainment:
  • Formulate solutions to limit the effects of natural Earth processes on humans.
  • Evaluate solutions to limit the effects of natural Earth processes on humans.
Teacher Vocabulary:
  • Natural Earth Process
    • tornado
    • hurricane
    • tsunamis
    • volcanic eruption
    • earthquakes
  • Criteria
  • Constraint
  • Modify
  • Formulate
  • Evaluate
  • Effects
  • Hazards
Students know:
  • Negative effects of a natural Earth process.
  • Solutions that can reduce the effect of natural Earth processes on humans.
Students are able to:
  • Use scientific knowledge to formulate design solutions to reduce the effects of Earth process.
  • Investigate and test how well design solutions perform under a range of likely conditions.
  • Evaluate and modify multiple solutions to reduce the effects of the Earth processes.
Students understand that:
  • A variety of hazards result from natural processes.
  • Humans cannot eliminate the hazards but can take steps to reduce their impacts.
  • Engineers improve existing technologies or develop new ones to increase their benefits or decrease risks, and to meet societal demands.
AMSTI Resources:
AMSTI Module:
Water and Landforms

Alabama Alternate Achievement Standards
AAS Standard:
SCI.AAS.4.17- Predict the best option for human safety in a given weather situation.

Local/National Standards:


Primary Learning Objective(s):

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • identify some of the characteristics that allow a building to withstand an earthquake.
  • create a model of a building using toothpicks and marshmallows.
  • explain why people need to be knowledgeable about earthquakes and the damage they can do.

Additional Learning Objective(s):

 Preparation Information 

Total Duration:

31 to 60 Minutes

Materials and Resources:

Each student needs:

  • 30 toothpicks
  • 30 miniature marshmallows
  • Science Notebook

For the entire class to share:

  • 5 8½-inch square disposable baking dishes
  • 5 boxes Jell-O (plus a stove, water, and pan to make the Jell-O in advance)

Technology Resources Needed:

Computer and Projector to show the video.

Students will need devices in order to complete the reading activity at the end of the lesson.


Background information for the teacher can be found at this link.

Teachers will need to prepare the Jell-O the night before the activity so that it is fully set when students begin the activity. Pour the Jell-O into five 8½-inch square pans to be shared by four students, or in one large pan for the entire class to share. There is no need to build an example for students to follow - this will limit their creativity and the engineering process.

The activity works best with fresh (soft) marshmallows. As the marshmallows sit out and dry out, the marshmallows and the structures become stable and rigid.


Do not leave the Jell-O uncovered too long, as it dries out and becomes less fluid, which affects the activity results.


Inform students that in a science lab or during science experiments, nothing should ever be put into their mouths.


Safety:  Inform students that in a science lab or during science experiments, nothing should ever be put into their mouths. The marshmallows and Jell-O are not for consumption. Instead, set some aside for a treat after the activity.


The detailed procedures/activities can be found at this link.

1. Show this video titled Earthquake 101.

2. Pass out the Earthquake Journal page. Tell students they will use this to record new knowledge and observations throughout the lesson. 

3. Discuss with the class what a civil engineer does, and how their job relates to buildings and earthquakes.

4. Pass out the marshmallows and toothpicks. These are the only materials they can use to build their structure.

5. Students should place their completed models on the pan of Jello. Next, tap the pans on the bottom to simulate the waves in an earthquake.

6. Students can redesign and rebuild as many times as they need, in order to build the best structure.

7. Students should draw their best structure in their science notebooks.

8. Have students work in pairs to partner read the following PBS article. As they read, students should answer any questions that they recorded in their science notebook as well as record any new vocabulary words they come across (such as tectonic plates, focus, epicenter, surface waves, body waves, P waves, S waves, aftershocks, seismograph, Richter scale) in the vocabulary section.

 9. Have students complete their earthquake journal page.

10. Have a class discussion about their new knowledge and observations.


Assessment Strategies

Students will be evaluated using teacher observation during the experiment and notebook responses/drawings.

Are students able to identify some of the characteristics that allow a building to withstand an earthquake, create a model of a building using toothpicks and marshmallows, and explain why people need to be knowledgeable about earthquakes and the damage they can do?




Students who need remediation will be paired with a higher level student for the reading activity.

View the Special Education resources for instructional guidance in providing modifications and adaptations for students with significant cognitive disabilities who qualify for the Alabama Alternate Assessment.