Teaching overview

Learning points

  • Engineers used a device called a tuned mass damper to make the Theme Building in Los Angeles earthquake-proof.
  • When an earthquake shakes the building one way, the tuned mass damper moves the opposite way, keeping the structure stable.
  • The state of California experiences a lot of earthquakes, which means its buildings have to be designed to withstand them.

Curriculum keywords

  • STEM
  • Earthquakes
  • Engineering

Spark a discussion

  • What is an earthquake? Why do earthquakes happen?
  • Where do earthquakes happen?
  • Why do earthquakes only happen in certain places?
  • What are tectonic plates? How do they relate to earthquakes?
  • What effect do earthquakes have on buildings?
  • How can we protect buildings from earthquakes?
  • Where is the Theme Building?
  • Why did the Theme Building have to be upgraded?
  • How did engineers make the theme building earthquake-proof?
  • What is a tuned mass damper and what does it do?
  • How do engineers test their design solutions? Why do they need to do this?

Multimedia toolbox

Earthquake effects video loop

Play the video loop as the students enter the classroom to spark a discussion about how earthquakes can affect buildings and the people inside them.

Skyscraper visual

Show the visual before the film to spark a discussion about how engineers stop skyscrapers from falling over, even during major earthquakes. Point out that each of the skyscrapers shown are built to be earthquake-resistant.

Theme building visual

Show the visual after the film and discuss how the building had to be upgraded to make it earthquake-proof.

Tectonic plate boundaries

Show the visual after the film to support the students’ understanding that earthquakes happen most frequently at plate boundaries.

Able to stay stable during an earthquake.


Show the visual after the film to reinforce scientific terminology.


How can we make a building earthquake-proof?

CONSTRUCT an earthquake-proof building and challenge teams to build the tallest structure.

Open detailed instructions

Other activity ideas

  • DESIGN an information booklet that advises people how to prepare for and stay safe during an earthquake.
  • RESEARCH two historical earthquakes and compare and contrast the key information, and their impact on humans and the environment.
  • ANALYSE data showing where earthquakes have occurred in the past year, mark these on the world map, and identify patterns.
Print this sheet

How can we make a building earthquake-proof?

Duration: 45 minutes


  • A cardboard base (approximately 25cm by 25cm)
  • 20 straws
  • 20 pipe cleaners
  • 100 paper clips (1 box)
  • 20 straight pins

Key Learning:

This investigation helps the students to understand that buildings can be designed and constructed in a way that helps them to withstand earthquakes.

  1. Have a class discussion about earthquakes. You can ask the following discussion questions:
    • What is an earthquake?
    • Why and where do earthquakes happen?
    • What are the effects of an earthquake?
    • What can we do to reduce the impact of earthquakes?
  2. Tell the students that they are going to design and make a building that is able to withstand the impact of an earthquake. The building must be at least 25cm tall and they will test it by recreating earthquake conditions.
  3. Divide the students into groups of 3 or 4 and give them the resources: a cardboard base (approximately 25cm by 25cm); 20 straws; 20 pipe cleaners; 100 paper clips (1 box); and 20 straight pins.
  4. Ask the groups to discuss how they might create a building that could withstand an earthquake using the resources provided. You could ask the following prompt questions:
    • Will the straws be stronger than the pipe cleaners?
    • Will the straight pins hold the building together better than the paper clips? Would a combination of both be effective?
    • How will you make sure the building doesn’t collapse or fall over?
    • Are the properties of the materials important?
  5. Allow the groups time to design and make their buildings.
  6. Test each of the finished buildings by gently shaking the desks to recreate earthquake conditions. The group whose structure can withstand the most vigorous shaking is the winner.
  7. After declaring the winning group, allow the students some time to refine their designs. Note: You could provide the groups with additional materials to strengthen their buildings.
  8. Discuss the final designs with the class. You can ask the following prompt questions:
    • Why did/didn’t your building fall down?
    • What could you do to strengthen your building?
    • What made the building of the winning team more earthquake-proof than your building?
    • Could you have made an even taller building?

Background information

  • Earthquakes happen when tectonic plates – the massive rocky plates making up the Earth’s crust – move towards each other. When the plates meet, one plate is slowly forced down beneath the other. The plates don’t move smoothly over one another, and their rocky, uneven surfaces can cause them to become stuck. When this happens, a build-up of pressure occurs, continuing to increase until the plates eventually slip free of each other. This releases all of the stored pressure in the form of an earthquake.
  • Earthquakes happen most often at the edges of tectonic plates, where they meet other plates. This is where the plates brush against each other most often, causing repeated pressure build-up and release. Earthquakes do happen in the centre of tectonic plates, but are often so small that we don’t feel them at all.
  • Earthquakes aren’t dangerous by themselves – an earthquake that happens in an open field won’t cause gaping chasms to open up (no matter what Hollywood says!). Earthquakes become dangerous when they happen around buildings. If a building hasn’t been designed to withstand an earthquake, and a large earthquake occurs, it is likely that it will collapse. Humans can prepare for earthquakes by building structures that are more resistant to them, especially in areas that are prone to earthquakes.
  • Engineers can design buildings that are able to absorb the energy of the earthquake without being destroyed by it. They have to make decisions about the shape of the structure as well as the materials used to build it. They can also use clever engineering apparatus to reduce or even cancel out the possibility of damage to a building, like a tuned mass damper.
  • A tuned mass damper is a device designed to stop a large building from moving dangerously when forces are applied to it. When an earthquake moves a building one way, the tuned mass damper moves the opposite way, balancing out the forces and making sure that the building stays stable.
  • Earthquake-proof buildings tend to be made out of materials that are relatively flexible. Wood and steel are more flexible than unreinforced concrete, glass or granite, and will resist a greater amount of shaking as a result.


Able to stay stable during an earthquake.
Tuned mass damper
A device used to prevent buildings from collapsing during an earthquake. It moves the opposite way to the building it is attached to, balancing out the forces acting on the structure and making it much more stable in an earthquake.
A person who designs and builds structures.

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