Sept. 19, 2017 — 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 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.
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.
Source: Jorge Salazar, Texas Advanced Computing Center