Properties of Building Materials


This lesson allows students to explore the properties and use of building materials, and relating those materials to earthquake engineering design.

Estimated Time

30-45 minutes


  • 4 dominos
  • 4 large marshmallows
  • 2 heavy books relatively equal in weight
  • 2 pieces of paper (8.5” by 11”)
  • pipe cleaner
  • plastic straws
  • rulers (with metric measurement)
  • rubber tubing
  • silly putty
  • tennis ball
  • wooden sticks


Students will learn about the trade-offs of availability, cost, flexibility, and strength, and the impacts of these characteristics on building materials.

National Standards Addressed

Math (Presented by National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 2000)
  • Use visualization, spatial reasoning, and geometric modeling to solve problems
Problem Solving
  • Solve problems that arise in mathematics and in other contexts
  • Monitor and reflect on the process of mathematical problem solving
  • Communicate their mathematical thinking coherently and clearly to peers, teachers, and others
  • Recognize and apply mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics
Science (Presented by National Research Council in 1996)
Unifying Concepts and Processes
  • Evidence, models, and explanation
  • Change, constancy, and measurement
Science and Technology
  • Abilities of technological design
Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
  • Natural hazards
  • Risks and benefits
Technology (Presented by the International Society for Technology in Education in 1998)
Social, ethical, and human issues
  • Students understand the ethical, cultural, and societal issues related to technology.
Technology problem-solving and decision-making tools
  • Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions.
  • Students employ technology in the development of strategies for solving problems in the real world.

Engagement Activity (optional)

  • Set up the 4 dominos up as the support corners to hold the piece of paper or the book.
  • Do the same with the 4 large marshmallows.
  • Set a piece of paper on each, showing that either set-up supports the weight of a piece of paper.
  • Remove the piece of paper, and place a heavy book on each instead.
  • Have students compare the impact of the heavy book and piece of paper to the domino columns and the marshmallow columns. (The marshmallows should squish somewhat under the weight.)
  • Ask students to come up with a term to define a substance’s ability to hold up weight (strength is a possibility).
  • Next, with the heavy books set up on the dominos and the marshmallows, shake the table slightly.
  • The dominos should fall over, while the marshmallows should retain some of the energy, keeping the structure sound.
  • Have students discuss the reason behind this, and name a term to define a substance’s ability to absorb some of the energy (flexibility or absorbency are possibilities).

Instructional Plan

  • Have students form 4-5 groups. Give each group a set of materials.
    • One group should get only straws, one group only wood sticks and silly putty, one group only pipe cleaners, one group only rubber tubing, and the last group all of the materials
  • Instruct the groups that their task is to build a structure at least 50 cm high, that will hold the weight of a tennis ball on top.
  • Students should have 15-20 minutes to build their structures, and 5 minutes to allow for 3 tests of their structures.
    • The tennis ball can be placed on the structure twice, to allow students to make some final changes before the final testing.
  • Bring students together, and have each group that had only one or two materials list some properties of their material, and what problems they faced in using it.
  • Allow the group that used all of the materials to discuss the benefits and problems they had, and what materials they chose to use in combination with others.
  • Move discussion into the building of real structures. Ask students if the materials they were given would be used in a real structure.
  • Explore the reasons why engineers and architects might use certain materials, such as steel posts and I-beams, wood, and concrete:
    • cost & availability
    • flexibility of the material
    • strength under pressure and weight
    • rigidity– a structures ability to maintain form
    • remember, if you made an ideal material for flexibility, strength, and rigidity, it may be very expensive and not readily available
  • Discuss how this relates to earthquake engineering design
    • materials need to be able to hold weight, but not be so stiff as to not be able to move in wind or some ground movement

Sustaining, Concluding, or Extending Activities (optional)


  • Ask students if they could use any of the materials provided in the first activity, which would they use and why.


  • Allow students to think of other materials they could use available in the classroom and have them build a taller structure. (Materials cannot be items such as desk or chairs).
  • Designate costs for each of the materials they can use, with a budget, and have students build their structures with those limitations.
  • Create a raft or boat to float to safety from a desert island using the materials a previous civilization left behind
  • Explore different kinds of roofs used, give pros and cons based on cost, availability, and needs for different climates. Different types of roofs are:
    • asphalt shingles
    • clay tiles
    • tile
    • tin
    • cedar shingles

Evaluation and Assessment

Students will be assessed by use of the observation of individual and group work during the building of the structures, along with the spoken reasoning given by students in describing choices made in their structures.

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