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If there were an earthquake, what structures would survive the shaking?

That was the question Parmalee Elementary School second graders attempted to answer on Feb. 3 when they designed structures, created them out of marshmallows and toothpicks, and then shook them to see if they could withstand the movement.

Teacher Katie Offerman explained that the earthquake experiment was part of a unit called “Earth Systems: Processes That Shape the Earth” as part of the Next Generation Science Standards. The idea is to have children discover science rather than be told about science.

The second graders learned about erosion and how wind and water affect soil before studying plate tectonics and how the shifting plates cause earthquakes.

Offerman wanted students to work in small groups to problem-solve how to build structures and to find ways to test whether the structures would survive an earthquake. The students decided they could put blocks or sand into a container, place their structures on top and then shake. They also decided moving the container back and forth 12 inches for six seconds would make a good test.

Eventually, they wondered if Jell-O would work, and Offerman had several containers with red Jell-O available for the project.

“My goal is to have them working together to solve problems,” Offerman said as she walked around the room to answer questions. She wants them to learn by discovering what would happen rather than telling them what to do.

The students tried cross bracing their structures with toothpicks to help bolster them, and if they tested one method of shaking their structures, they then tried another to verify their results. Some structures were much sturdier than others.

“Choose one thing to change to see if your structure will hold up to another type of test,” Offerman told them.

Second graders Hanna Bergen, Lupe Detterrera and Graham Jundt constructed an elaborate structure with a long base and what looked like a church steeple on the top.

Second graders Kyle Troy and Noah Bond shook their structure for six seconds, and they were pleased that the shaking didn’t move it.

“I don’t want to steer too much,” Offerman explained. “If they’re successful with the first test of their structure, then they need to use more abstract thinking to find another variable.”