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Shake Things Up! An Earthquake Lesson Plan Using Shake Tables

written by: Terrie Schultz • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 4/5/2012

Shake tables are simple to construct, and provide an engaging way to teach students about the effects of earthquakes on structures. This earthquake lesson plan will surely get your students "shaking"!

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    Shake tables are a fun and engaging tool to use when teaching an earth science unit about earthquakes. Scientists use huge shake tables to simulate earthquake ground movement and predict earthquake damage to actual buildings. In this earthquake lesson plan activity, students will build structures and test them to see which structures are best able to withstand the shaking of an earthquake. It is best done in small groups of two to 4 students, so all of the students can have a chance to be involved in the activity, but fewer materials are needed.

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    For each shake table, you will need:

    • Two pieces of heavy cardboard or thin wood, approximately 12 x 12 inches (30 x 30 cm). Covers of worn out three-ring binders work well for this
    • Four rubber balls or bouncy balls, about one inch (2.5 cm) in diameter
    • Two large rubber bands

    To construct the shake table, place one board on top of the other, lining up the sides. Stretch the rubber bands around the boards on two opposite sides to hold the boards together. Slide the rubber bands in so that they are about 1 inch from the outer edge of the board. Pull the boards apart and insert a ball between the two boards on each of the four corners. The balls should be approximately 1 inch in from the corner. Gently pulling and releasing, or jiggling the top board of the shake table will cause a movement that simulates the movement of the ground during the earthquake.

    Students will build structures and then place them on the shake table, move it to simulate an earthquake, and test which structures are most stable. For building the structures, students can use Legos, wooden blocks, sugar cubes, popsicle sticks, toothpicks, marshmallows, plastic straws, pipe cleaners, paper clips, playing cards, or any other common materials. Students can experiment with the height of the structures and how different construction methods affect stability.

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    After this activity, teachers can have a class discussion about earthquake preparedness and safety. This is especially important if you live in a location that is at risk for earthquakes. Some important things to do to prepare for an earthquake are:

    • Secure heavy items such as water heaters, bookcases, televisions and other pieces of heavy furniture that can fall over and cause injury
    • Keep a disaster kit in the home that contains clean drinking water, non-perishable food, first aid supplies, a flashlight, batteries and a portable radio.
    • Learn what to do when an earthquake strikes: Stay away from windows and exterior walls. To reduce risk of injury, Drop, Cover and Hold On: drop to the floor and take shelter underneath a heavy table or desk, and hold onto it until the shaking stops.

    For more resources on teaching about earthquakes, see Earthquake Vocabulary Terms