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Lesson: Design a Tornado-Proof Building

Maine artist Philip Brou's scale model of twister lifting Dorothy's house in the Wizard of Oz hous

(Lesson adapted from Tornado! at

Grade Level: 3rd – 5th

Time: Two 50-minute class periods


NSTA Standard A:
Teachers of science plan an inquiry-based science program for their students.

International Technology Education Association

  • D. Structures need to be maintained. (Grades 3 – 5) [2000]
  • D. When designing an object, it is important to be creative and consider all ideas. (Grades 3 – 5) [2000]
  • E. Models are used to communicate and test design ideas and processes. (Grades 3 – 5) [2000]
  • D. Invention and innovation are creative ways to turn ideas into real things. (Grades 3 – 5) [2000]
  • E. Many systems are used in buildings. (Grades 3 – 5) [2000]
  • Massachusetts Science Standards:
  • 2.3 Identify relevant design features (e.g., size, shape, weight) for building a prototype of a solution to a given problem. (Grades 3 – 5) [2006]

Summary: Student teams use their knowledge of tornadoes and damage to design a structure that will withstand wind and protect people from twisters. 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 sturdy structures that can 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 tornado-proof engineering techniques include improved roof shingles and roof design, well-secured house walls, an anchored foundation, and enhanced building materials. (See the Federal Emergency Management’s safe room/shelter construction specifications and community wind shelter brochure.)


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

  • Understand that tornadoes affect humans by causing property damage and loss of life.
  • Describe the damage to structures caused by tornadoes.
  • Understand how and why engineers design new and better buildings to withstand tornadoes.
  • Understand the Fujita Tornado Damage Scale (.pdf handout) (interactive game) of tornado intensity rates.
  • Understand some basics of tornado safety.
  • Read and write for a variety of purposes and audiences.

Materials List

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


This month saw a spate of destructive tornadoes sweep the nation from the Midwest to North Carolina, destroying homes, businesses, and even a college campus. Some of the largest and most damaging twisters in history occurred in 1999 in Oklahoma and Kansas. Overall, these tornadoes caused 49 deaths and over $1 billion in damage. Tornadoes affect civil engineers the most because they design, build, and maintain roads, railways and buildings. Engineers also collect evidence following storms to help classify tornadoes, dispel tornado myths, and find better ways to safely build structures in high-tornado areas.

Design. One danger of tornadoes is their ability to propel objects through the air like missiles. For example, wind engineers at Texas Tech University have a cannon specially designed 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 such tornado effects as wood splinters piercing a brick building. The high winds blowing over roofs also cause a change in air pressure just above the roof. The pressure difference between inside and outside a building can cause the structure to crumble or the roof to bulge up and be blown away in the wind. These illustrations from the National Storm Shelter Association presentation show how wind puts different stresses on structures.

Safety. 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 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 country’s mid-section where most tornadoes occur. (Norman, Okla., in the heart of Tornado Alley, experiences a distinct tornado season from February to May.) Tornadoes can produce winds over 250 mph. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), about 1,300 tornadoes are reported across the United States in an average year, resulting in 80 deaths and over 1,500 injuries. Nearly half 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?


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 are no wrong answers.
3. Students should get into design teams of two to four.
4. They will use what they have learned about tornadoes 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 tornadoes. Students can use the Tornado Safety Handout to get some ideas of things to add to a house.
6. Using the interactive Fujita Tornado Damage Scale applet from the University of Wisconsin’s “Weatherwise” site and handout, have students rate what tornado their structure can withstand and include this rating on the poster. A
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.

Make a ‘pet tornado’ in a jar with liquid soap and a marble, or build a more ambitious simulator in a box.


Watch a video of one designer’s futuristic plans for an underground tornado-proof home or the Discovery Science series on building hurrican-proof homes.

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.

Fujita Scale applet and illustrations are courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Weather Wise interactive teaching and training aids. Copyright: ©2003-2010 by Tom Whittaker, S.V. Medaris, and Steve Ackerman. The Motion-W® and Bucky Badger® logos are trademarks of the University of Wisconsin, Madison

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