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Build it Better!

Grade Level: 4 (3-5)

Time: Two 50 minute class periods

Summary: Students use their knowledge of tornadoes and damage. The students will work in groups to design a structure that will withstand and protect people from tornadoes. Each group will create a poster with the name of their engineering firm and a picture of their structure. Finally, each group will present their posters to the class.
Engineering Connection: Engineers strive to design structures that can endure tornadoes and protect people from violent wind forces. Following storms, they collect evidence to analyze tornado behavior and find better ways to economically build safer structures in high-risk areas. To test the strength and durability of materials and construction methods, engineers re-create tornado conditions. Creative engineering techniques to tornado-proof structures include improved roof shingles and roof design, well-secured house walls, an anchored foundation, and enhanced building materials.

Learning Objectives
After this activity, students should be able to:

Materials List

  • 1 sheet of white poster board
  • Variety of crayons, markers, pencils


Some of the largest and most damaging tornadoes in history occurred in 1999 in Oklahoma and Kansas. Overall, these tornadoes caused 49 deaths and over $1 billion in damage. Tornados affect civil engineers the most because they design, build and maintain roads, railways and buildings. Engineers also collect evidence following storms and to help classify tornadoes, dispel tornado myths, and find better ways to safely build structures in high-tornado areas.

One danger of tornadoes is their ability to propel objects like missiles through the air. For example, wind engineers at Texas Tech University have a cannon designed specially to test the strength of various construction materials. The cannon fires boards and other objects at over 100 mph into different building materials to duplicate the effects of a tornado, such as wood splinters flying into a brick or other material building. The high winds blowing over roofs of buildings also cause a change in air pressure just above the roof. The pressure difference between inside and outside a building can cause the building to crumble or the roof to bulge up and be blown away in the wind.

Because buildings are not always built to resist a tornado it is important to understand tornado safety procedures. The first thing to do if you know there is a tornado coming is go and find shelter, immediately! Safe places include safe rooms, storm cellars, basements or interior rooms that have no windows. If you are in a mobile home, leave it! Tornadoes like to pick these up or flatten them! If you can, place a mattress, sleeping bag or heavy blanket over your body to protect yourself.

Now that you know everything– well not quite everything! —  it is time to make a better house for a family that lives in Tornado Alley, the area of the United States where most tornadoes occur. Tornadoes can produce winds over 250 mph. According to NOAA, about 1,000 tornadoes are reported across the United States in an average year; resulting in 80 deaths and over 1,500 injuries. Approximately, 45 percent of these deaths were people living in mobile homes. With these statistics in mind, it is easy to see why it is important for engineers to build buildings that can withstand the tremendous forces of a tornado. Can you come up with a few ideas to design a house that will be super tornado proof?


  • Go to the library and get books/reference materials on tornados
  • Gather activity materials

With the Students

1. Discuss how tornadoes can damage buildings; i.e., cause them to crumble, blow roofs off, or become damaged by flying debris. Lead a short brainstorming session with students asking them to think of ways a tornado might damage a house.
2. Tell students that they will be designing their own tornado-proof structure. Some ideas for students to use in their structures are: improve roof shingles and the roof design, devise better ways to secure the house walls, anchor the foundation, and use of better building materials. Students can think of any other creative ideas that they want. How about adding sails on a house and using it as a tornado boat! The objective is to be creative; there is no wrong answer.
3. Students should get into design teams of two to four.
4. They will use what they have learned about tornados in previous activities to design a poster of a house that will stand up to high wind speeds. This activity uses a lot of creativity, and there are no “wrong” designs. They can use ideas such as including a basement for protection during a tornado and coming up with better building designs.
5. Have student groups name their engineering firm (e.g., Wind-Proof Structural Engineers). The poster should have labels that briefly describe what is labeled and how it protects from tornados. Students can use the Tornado Safety Handout (attached) to get some ideas of things to add to a house.
6. Ask them to use the Fujita Tornado Damage Scale (attached) to rate what tornado their structure can withstand and include this rating on the poster.
7. The second class period is for presenting their building to their peers. Student presentations should include a general overview of their building, as well as a description of each labeled feature on their poster.

Troubleshooting Tips

If students are having trouble, refer them to damage pictures from references. What could they change? Also, the teacher may want to include a day in the library or an Internet search to gather more information for the activity.

Pre-activity assessment

Brainstorming: As a class, have the students engage in open discussion. Remind students that in brainstorming, no idea or suggestion is “silly.” All ideas should be respectfully heard. Encourage wild ideas and discourage criticism of ideas. Have them raise their hands to respond. Write answers on the board. Ask the students: How might a tornado damage a house?

Activity embedded assessment

Posters: Have students create posters of their designs as directed in Procedures section.

Post activity assessment

Presentations: Have student teams present their building design posters to the class.

Pass the Buck: Have students brainstorm ideas to design a new school that will stand up to a tornado’s high-speed winds. First, assign one student in the group to be the recorder. Then have someone toss out an idea. Next, another person in the group provides an idea that builds on the first. Go around the group in this fashion until all students have put in enough ideas to put together a design. When they are done, have them share their ideas with the class.

Activity Extensions

Invite a structural or civil engineer to discuss building designs that help prevent loss during windstorms and tornadoes.

Student can build an interactive hurricane-proof house (see for more information).

Have students make 3D models of their tornado proof homes.

Students can add safety measures for an entire community to their posters. Some suggestions include: building standards that all houses have a storm cellar or basement, community storm shelters for mobile home parks or public places, warning sirens, weather radios, community safety workshops, or banning mobile homes in Tornado Alley.

Owner: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado at Boulder

Contributors: Jessica Todd, Melissa Straten, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Janet Yowell

Copyright: © 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

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