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Groovy Earthquake Proof Skyscrapers

 Groovy Earthquake Proof Skyscrapers

“An earthquake is such fun when it is over.” – George Orwell

A long time ago, our ancestors believed earthquakes to be the act of the Gods. Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, was the first to realise that earthquakes were more than an act of the Gods. To this day, STEMists continue to tame the devastating effects earthquakes have on human lives, buildings, roads, and power supplies.

How do people build structures that resist earthquake damage? Well, in the past it wasn’t really possible. The building materials available were limited to stone, brick, wood, thatch – none of them good for surviving earthquakes or high winds. Modern skyscrapers are made possible by modern building materials, especially steel.

What is steel?

Steel is iron mixed with other substances and/or given special treatments.  Carbon steel is iron mixed with carbon.  Depending on the amounts of each element, carbon steel can be brittle and hard like cast iron (e.g. a skillet) or soft and workable like wrought iron (think of a groovy iron gate.)

Wrought Iron Gate

Groovy Wrought Iron Gate

Alloy steel is iron mixed with other metals such as chromium, nickel, or vanadium.  The metals in the mix are chosen to make the iron stronger or lighter.  Tool steel is specially treated to be strong through a process called tempering.  The steel is quickly heated to a high temperature, quickly cooled (quenched) and heated again to a lower temperature.  Finally, stainless steel is mixed with high amounts of chromium and nickel to make it smooth, easy to clean and polish. Stainless steel is used for eating utensils and surgical instruments.

How do STEMists make buildings earthquake resistant?

The more lightweight and flexible a building is, the better it can withstand the lateral (sideways) forces of an earthquake.  Skyscrapers are built around a steel frame that supports the weight of the walls and floors.  Regular buildings use the walls to support the weight of the house or other structure, but in a skyscraper the weight of all those upper walls would be too much for the lower walls to support.  Steel makes tall buildings possible.

From the spire of the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai during construction

From the spire of the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai during construction

The foundation of a skyscraper is extremely important. Think of a pyramid with its wide base. Would it stand as well if turned upside down? Of course not!  Base-isolation, an engineering design, is used to prevent damage to buildings from the seismic impact from earthquakes. This technique where the bottom section of a building absorb the seismic waves of energy to prevent damage, was used as far back as the Mausoleum of Cyrus.

Mausoleum of Cyrus, the oldest base-isolated structure in the world

Mausoleum of Cyrus, the oldest base-isolated structure in the world

Skyscrapers are placed on a foundation designed to absorb vibrations from earthquakes.  Architects design flexible springs and cushioned cylinders to act as shock absorbers.  Think of the shock absorbers on a car.  Without proper shocks, the car would bounce dangerously as it moved over potholes or railroad crossings. The shocks keep all the tires on the ground despite bumps, just as a building’s foundation keeps the building from tipping or moving off the foundation.

Flexible springs and cushioned cylinders to act as shock absorbers

Architects design flexible springs and cushioned cylinders to act as shock absorbers.

A shake table is a device used to determine how well a building will react to earthquakes.  To see how well structures will react to earthquake shocks, building models are placed on massive outdoor shake tables and subjected to an array of ground motion energy.

Shake Table

Outdoor Shake Table

Burj Khalifa building in Dubai
The Burj Khalifa, the world’s largest skyscraper, is so tall the tip of the top sphere is visible from 95 kilometers away on a clear day. It has an enormous “mass dampener” or harmonic absorber. This is a device mounted inside skyscrapers to absorb vibrations that might otherwise damage the building. The aluminum used in the building weighs as much as five A380 aircraft and the concrete weighs as much as 100,000 elephants. The Burj Khalifa’s aesthetic and environmental design mimics the look of a hymenocallis flower with its shaped central spire while collecting 15 million gallons of water every year.

Burj Khalifa building in Dubai

Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa building in Dubai

Design and Inspiration from Nature

Burj Khalifa compared with some other well-known tall structures

Burj Khalifa compared with some other well-known tall structures (not all pictured are, however, earthquake proof.)

Taipei 101 building in Taiwan

In Taiwan, the Taipei 101 building (over 449 meters high) includes a central column that acts as a pendulum to balance the sideways movement of seismic waves from earthquakes and typhoons.  Architects got this idea from ancient pagodas (temples) which have stood for centuries in earthquake-prone areas.  The Japanese used the same pagoda idea when they built the Yokohama Landmark Tower (296 meters tall.)

Taipei 101 building in Taiwan

Taipei 101 Skyline

Taipei 101 building in Taiwan

Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia
The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, stand 452 meters high. They were the tallest buildings in the world until 2004 and remain the tallest twin towers in the world. They include the world’s tallest 2-story bridge connecting the 41st and 42nd floors. The bridge is designed to slide in and out of the buildings as the wind causes the buildings to sway–safer than a rigid design would be.

Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia

The Petronas Towers at dusk.

Petronas Towers Skyline

The Petronas Towers and the Kuala Lumpur Tower dominate the skyline of Kuala Lumpur’s Central Business District.

U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles
In the United States, earthquakes are most closely associated with the state of California, although there are fault lines in other areas of the country as well. The U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles is 310 meters high. It is also known as the Library Tower because it includes a restored Los Angeles library.

U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles

U.S. Bank Tower in Los Angeles

Downtown Los Angeles Skyline

Downtown Los Angeles Skyline

TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco
Another famous skyscraper in California is the TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco. This elongated pyramid was built to allow sunlight to reach the surrounding areas in spite of the building’s height of 260 meters. That was pretty groovy for them to do for their not so tall neighbors. Because of the shape of the building, the majority of the windows can pivot 360 degrees so they can be washed from the inside. The spire is actually hollow and lined with a 100-foot steel stairway at a 60 degree angle, followed by two steel ladders. There used to be a public observation deck on the 27th floor, but it was closed after 9/11. That means you can only check out the view by looking at the live feeds at the Visitor Center.

TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco

TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco

TransAmerica Pyramid in San Francisco

Interior TransAmerica Pyramid

There is a commemorative plaque in honor of Bummer and Lazarus, the famous dogs of the 1850s, at the base of the building.

Bummer and Lazarus, the famous dogs of the 1850s

Buildings of the Future

The Wilshire Grand Tower
The Wilshire Grand Tower will be 335 meters tall when completed. It will then be the tallest building in Los Angeles and the tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

The Wilshire Grand Tower

Salesforce Tower (once called the Transbay Tower)
Also being built in San Francisco is the Salesforce Tower (once called the Transbay Tower.) This building will be 326 meters tall and second tallest building west of the Mississippi. It was begun in 2013 and is expected to be open in 2018.

Salesforce Tower (once called the Transbay Tower)

Architects and engineers are always looking for new ideas to build groovier buildings, especially in earthquake-prone areas. Old ideas like the pagoda and new ideas like modern alloy steel and harmonic absorbers can combine to make buildings that look groovy and stand tall through the forces of nature.

Learn More about earthquakes and earthquake proof structures with “Shake It Up” Groovy Lab in a Box!

Shake It Up” Engineering Design Challenge: You are a groovy earthquake engineer who has been contracted by the city of Los Angeles. Using only the materials from your Groovy Lab in a Box, can you design and build the tallest skyscraper that can withstand the next BIG quake?

During their engineering design process, STEMists will investigate what causes earthquakes while constructing a groovy seismograph and shake table. Explore S and P waves, fault planes, famous earthquake proof structures around the world and much, much more! From their groovy lab notebook, STEMists do investigation activities which work in tandem with the special “Beyond…in a Box” online learning portal. This is a unique feature of Groovy Lab in a Box because it gives STEMists a deeper understanding of that month’s topic. “Beyond…in a Box” has videos, reading library and more interactive activities to supplement what they are learning from the box projects, which also helps the STEMist even more when completing the design challenge.

Join Now! and challenge your STEMists to a monthly Groovy Lab in a Box, full of everything a child needs to learn about and do hands-on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) investigations and engineering design challenges. Our monthly box activates thinking, questioning, inquiring and original creation as we guide children through scientific inquiry and the engineering design process.

4 Groovy Activities to Teach about Vibration and Sound Energy

Most STEMists learn to appreciate vibrations as an infant when they hear their first lullaby.  And, many learn to love singing children’s songs with the accompaniment of maracas, drums and triangles in preschool and elementary school. But, do STEMists completely understand the energy of sound vibration— how we are able to hear and feel sound?
4 Groovy Activities to Teach about Vibration and Sound Energy
Sound is more than noise; it is energy.  A groovy way to teach your STEMists about sound is by listening and seeing sound waves through simple activities that demonstrate the three characteristics of sound: pitch, volume and frequency.

Here are four activities you can do with your STEMists to learn about the energy of sound vibration, and how it can be seen and heard.

Humming a Tune

Have your STEMists place their fingers on their throat and hum their favorite song. Or, ask your STEMists to hum a tune through a kazoo. Ask them to discuss what they feel. Then explain they are feeling the vibrations of their vocal chords, which vibrate to make sound. The vibrations you feel when you hum are how we make and hear sound.

Fun with a Tuning Fork

Fun with a Tuning Fork

You will need a tuning fork (available from any musical instrument store) and ping pong ball. Strike a tuning fork and place one of its tines against ping pong ball. Discuss sound waves and what happened to the ping pong ball. Why did it move? Talk with your STEMists about the changes in vibration in relation to the changes in sound.

Sounding Off with a Spatula

All you need for this activity is a metal spatula.  Lay the spatula on a table or student’s desk with its handle extended over the side.  Ask your STEMists to pull the handle down. Then, discuss what happens when they let it go.  Do they see or hear anything?  Talk about the characteristics of sound, and the similarity between the vibrations of the spatula and the vibrations of your vocal chords when you talk.

Boom Box

This activity requires a boom box, paper plate, small pieces of paper and balloons.  Blow up a balloon and hold it in front of a boom box speaker.  Then, turn up the volume and observe.  Next, place a paper plate that holds small pieces of paper on top and place it on top of the boom box.  Discuss sound energy and what happens when you turn up the volume.

Note: Remind students that loud noises can damage their ears, especially when playing loud music – whether it’s through a boom box or earphones from your iPhone!

Below are some definitions for STEMists to learn as they go through the above sound energy activities:

  • Vibration – The back and forth movement of an object; Sound is made by vibrations that are usually too fast to see.
  • Sound Energy – Audible energy that is released when playing music, talking or a clap of thunder. As explained by Exploresound.org, “Sound is produced when an object vibrates. Near the vibrating surface, air follows that surface and the air molecules begin to vibrate, or oscillate. These oscillations spread from one molecule to the next, and a sound wave moves outward from the vibrating surface.”
  • Sound Wave – A longitudinal pressure wave of audible or inaudible sound.
  • Wave – A disturbance that travels through a medium, such as air or water.

Three Properties of Sound:

  1. Volume – how loud a sound is, a measure of amplitude
  2. Pitch – how high or low a sound is in relation to wavelength and frequency
  3. Frequency– how fast a sound wave is moving (high frequency = short wavelength = high pitch)

Let your STEMists join in the fun of more learning about sound and vibrations with this month’s music-themedGood Vibrations” Groovy Lab in a Box.  Order yours today!

Capture Summertime Fun with Catapults

Catapulting is fun and provides a frame of reference for physics concepts your STEMists are learning in school.  Why not plan to build a catapult this summer?  Kids love to watch objects fly through the air, across the room or in the yard. It’s easy, and you can do so with items found around the house and in your STEMists’ toy closet.


Build a LEGO Catapult

Anytime your STEMists build with LEGO blocks is time well spent and a sure way to improve the creator, explorer, and inventor in them!

Young STEMists can easily build a catapult with LEGO building blocks.  All you need to do is build a catapult platform with an arm and snap it onto a set of LEGO wheels attached to a LEGO axel.  And, voila, you are ready to launch!

Older STEMists can create a more sophisticated catapult using LEGO building pieces and a rubber band to create the right amount of torque for firing projectiles. FrugalFun4boys.com offers an easy to follow pictorial on how to build this LEGO contraption.

No matter what materials are used to build your catapult, you will enjoy watching your STEMists use their design engineering skills to tweak their creations to launch their projectiles further and further from where they first landed.

If your STEMists love catapults, check out our “Out To Launch” single box today!

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