Latest News

 

Buildings vs. Earthquakes: High School Students Learn the Science

Published on September 18, 2017 by Jorge Salazar

Code@TACC DesignSafe summer STEM camp students learned about the science behind building design for earthquakes. (Damarius Kennedy, Briana Cuero, Etienne Cuero)

What if high school kids could make a building stand up to an earthquake? A summer camp at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) smoothed the way for students to learn about the science behind building design for earthquakes.

Thirty high school students from Texas and Louisiana sharpened their skills in civil engineering and computation at a 2017 summer camp called Code@TACC DesignSafe. The camp was supported by DesignSafe, a national cyberinfrastructure program funded by the National Science Foundation. DesignSafe is a web-based research platform of the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure Network (NHERI). It helps engineers perform research that leads to building safer structures that are resilient to natural hazards such as earthquakes, windstorms, and hurricanes.

Code@TACC DesignSafe students designed and built structures with K'NEX. (Krystian Gonzalez and John Hardin)

Code@TACC DesignSafe students had a hands-on experience building structures and using coding in their engineering projects. (Rex Hearn)

The Code@TACC DesignSafe Camp students spent a week at UT Austin‘s Texas Advanced Computing Center, home to some of the world's most powerful supercomputers. Student teams were given a project to design their own building models outfitted with sensors that recorded movement as the structures were shaken under laboratory conditions based on historical earthquake data.

"What we wanted to show the Code@TACC DesignSafe students was that they can use coding to do science and engineering," said Joon-Yee Chuah, outreach coordinator at TACC.

Students used Python programming to analyze data they gathered from sensors to find the resonant frequency of their buildings.
Code@TACC DesignSafe instructor Patty Hill, an algebra teacher at Kealing Middle School of Austin ISD.

Code@TACC DesignSafe gave the students a taste of what it's like to engineer for earthquakes. The students made buildings out of the construction toy K'NEX. They tested these structures at the UT Austin Ferguson Structural Engineering Lab, where they simulated the effects of an earthquake. They used a shake table, a computer-controlled motorized table that can re-create the wave patterns of historically significant earthquakes. The students collected movement data via accelerometers attached to their model buildings. They analyzed the data with the Python programming language and looked for resonant frequencies of the structures.

Student teams presented their findings after four days of building, testing, data collection, and making videos of their structures shaking in the lab. Ultimately, they were able to evaluate how well their buildings responded to different types of earthquakes based on historic earthquake data.

The student teams studied a handful of different earthquakes from history. The 2003 laterally-moving strike-slip quake in Bam, Iran, gave them a vivid example of disaster: an estimated 40,000 people killed and 20,000 more injured.

I feel like this is a fantastic program.
Chunxiao Ge, Bastrop ISD

"We believe a reason for this high casualty rate is because of the structures of the building," said camp student Briana Cuero at her team's final presentation as she pointed at slides showing the aftermath. "You can see in the image of the buildings in Bam, they're mostly made of cement from clay that is ample in this region. We decided to create a building which could sustain its structure and wouldn't collapse drastically."

She explained that the diagonal struts would help stabilize the walls of her team's model. "It also has a little star for a decoration," Briana added.

Code@TACC DesignSafe students tested their structures using data that mimicked historical earthquakes on a shake table at the UT Austin Ferguson Structural Engineering Lab. (Adriana Reyes, Ahmed Mohamed, Rex Hearn)

Students showed their results at a final presentation for their parents, friends, and TACC staff. (Reg Gonzales, Nishta Tripathi, Issac Covarrubias)

The Code@TACC DesignSafe student teams faced budgetary and physical constraints. (Ananya Venkateswaran)

Students had the freedom to follow their imagination in designing their buildings. (George Strong, Daisy Cheng)

Student Damarius Kennedy reminded everyone about the limitations facing their structures. They had to be at least 18 inches tall and couldn't be wider than the boards selected to sit on the shake tables. They were confined to a budget of 10 dollars, which Kennedy's team spent on balsa wood, hot glue, and gorilla tape to stabilize the roof and struts. What's more, they could only make small changes to their design the first rounds from their nemesis, the shake table.

It brought things together in a way where everything made sense.
Patty Hill, Austin ISD.

"One issue we had is with the weights on the structures. They bowed," Damarius pointed out. "The green pieces fell out, and our roof collapsed. Our solution was to put ties on the place where it collapsed, connecting to the lower green and the blue connectors of the K'NEX," she said.

Student Etienne Cuero showed the audience of parents, students, and TACC staff their data analysis. "We used graphs to determine the amplitude and the frequency of each earthquake test," Etienne explained.

Each team also had to discuss ways to improve their results. "If we could do this again, we could add supports on all four walls," said team member Max Irby. "On the second story, we could add that support and make everything more equal and more stable."

Code@TACC DesignSafe instructor Chunxiao Ge, a physics and biology teacher at the Colorado River Collegiate Academy of Bastrop ISD.

The structures were outfitted with sensors to record their movement in simulated earthquakes. (Adriana Reyes)

Max added that they would also remove the weight from the top. "That star didn't serve any purpose, and we had already met the height requirement," he said.

"In conclusion," said Etienne,"our building moved just as much as the earthquake and a bit more, which is bad because if you were in that situation you would have unpredictable movement. And things landing on you hurts!"

"This is a fantastic program," said Code@TACC DesignSafe instructor Chunxiao Ge (Emma Gee), a physics and biology teacher at the Colorado River Collegiate Academy of Bastrop ISD. "Kids spend four days and have a deep understanding of the basic physics and math. Here in this camp, students interpret data and graphs in a way that is true to the real world," Ge said.


We want students and parents to know that coding is going to be a fundamental part of any engineering or scientific field in the future.
Joonyee Chuah, TACC

Code@TACC DesignSafe instructor Patty Hill, an algebra teacher at Kealing Middle School of Austin ISD, agreed that the camp went well. "What this project does, and what this camp did, was it brought things together in a way where everything made sense. You see how science and math and the real-world experiences of the civil engineer, and the aftermath of the earthquakes — it all blended together," Hill said.

Hill and Ge participated in the DesignSafe Research Experience for Teachers, where they learned new ways to apply coding and analysis and how to teach engineering through Jupyter notebooks and the Python programming language. After the camp, the teachers were given K'NEX building supplies; materials to build their own classroom shake table; and access to the DesignSafe web portal.

The 30 Code@TACC DesignSafe students came to the Texas Advanced Computing Center from high schools mainly near Austin, TX, but some from as far as Shreveport, LA.
"We want the students to be able to bring back to their schools the same type of engineering experiences so that students who can't attend the summer camp can also have those same type of experiences in the classroom," Joon-Yee Chuah of TACC said.

"We want students and parents to know that coding is going to be a fundamental part of any engineering or scientific field in the future," Chua continued. "Maybe they aren't interested in things like programming robots or programming apps and games. But coding is still going to be important. We want to show students that they can both have a hands on experience doing things like building structures, and then still use coding as part of those engineering projects. So it's truly multidisciplinary," Chuah said.


Story Highlights

Thirty high school students from Texas and Louisiana attended the week-long Code@TACC DesignSafe summer camp, hosted by the Texas Advanced Computing Center and supported by NSF-funded DesignSafe program.

Code@TACC DesignSafe students designed and built structures that were subjected to simulated earthquakes at the UT Austin Ferguson Structural Engineering Lab.

Two TACC scientists and two high school teachers worked with TACC outreach coordinator Joon-Yee Chuah to instruct the students.

Code@TACC DesignSafe students formed science teams and presented final demonstrations to their families and to TACC staff.


Contact

Faith Singer-Villalobos

Communications Manager
faith@tacc.utexas.edu | 512-232-5771

Aaron Dubrow

Science And Technology Writer
aarondubrow@tacc.utexas.edu

Jorge Salazar

Technical Writer/Editor
jorge@tacc.utexas.edu | 512-475-9411