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Built to Last — Studying Weather and Building Tornado-Proof Houses

By Stacey Burt on April 6, 2012
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

I love spring! Even with all of the unpredictable weather, it is definitely my favorite season. I can’t think of a better time of year to teach all aspects of weather and the atmosphere. When I begin this unit of study each year, I tend to focus quite a bit on severe weather (we sure have our share here in middle Tennessee). Tornados, hurricanes, tsunamis, and landslides are high interest topics for 5th and 6th grade students, and I am constantly on the lookout for creative ways to take the concepts deeper for my high-achieving students.


Building Disaster-Proof Houses

Ironically, one of my colleagues — and 2011–2012 Scholastic blogger — Kristy Mall presented a great lesson idea during a STEM training session she was facilitating for our school. The lesson had students conduct research on and design tornado-proof homes or structures. Instantly I was smitten with this idea. At the conclusion of our weather unit, my students have designed and built prototypes of not only tornado-proof structures, but also tsunami-, hurricane-, earthquake-, mudslide-, and volcano-proof buildings as well. Of course, like any good scientist, would we must test these designs in the lab. Tomorrow we will be testing each prototype for the disaster it was created to withstand. I have to admit, finding the substance to use for “lava” was a bit tricky. With the assistance of my 6th grade class we decided on steaming hot oatmeal because the viscosity can be manipulated by adding water.

The students created some amazing designs, and I am very proud to share their buildings with you in this post. I was amazed by the level of dedication that went into the research portion of the assignment. On the due date the students proudly presented the facts about the severe weather (or natural disaster) that inspired the design of their structures, and they gave very specific reasons why they believed that their design would be successful in the testing phase of the project. Students were able to synthesize the implications of natural disasters and severe weather on manmade structures through the lens of the engineering design process. Scientific thinking was obvious throughout the presentations and evident in the cited research. They were able to make the connection between the real-world application of science and scientific theory. I hope you enjoy the images below and are inspired to challenge your engineers to create the next tornado-proof building.


Additional Resources

Some resources that may be helpful for your students as they study all things weather include Weather Wiz Kids, a site designed by a meteorologist; the NOAA Education page on weather systems; Weather Stories, which offers first-person accounts of severe weather written by kids; and the Weather Channel's weather-proof structures video clips.

The following titles from Scholastic are also great for this activity:

Comments (8)

Could you post or email more details of how you assigned this?

Is there a way you could send me your lesson plans on this topic?

Thanks for the help!

So awesome this is my school homework so these pictures have given me great inspiration thank you(:

:3 thats cool!


Do the parents supply the materials or does the school pay?

Well parents can pay I think.

very cool. Something I may consider for our unit of severe weather next year!

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