For the past five years, Villanova Community Action by New Engineers (NovaCANE), a volunteer group of Villanova University College of Engineering students and faculty, has brought engineering into the classrooms of local schools. The goal is to improve middle school students’ interest and abilities in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math. On Dec. 5, NovaCANE’s lesson at St. Martin of Tours Elementary School in Philadelphia came with a holiday twist. Villanova Engineering students challenged an enthusiastic group of sixth graders to construct gingerbread houses that could withstand an earthquake simulation.
As part of their yearlong focus on structural engineering, students in this voluntary after school program were given a 10-20 minute informative lecture about earthquakes and their impact on structures. The lesson was followed by a 45 – 60 minute hands-on activity. Four groups of 4–6 students were given housing supplies—graham crackers, licorice, icing and candy—to construct a two-story gingerbread house. While building their houses, students not only had to ensure that their structure could stand freely, but they also needed take into consideration how plate tectonics impact structures during earthquakes. Following construction, each group’s gingerbread house was put to the test on a “shake table” to see whether it could survive an earthquake. When each design ultimately collapsed, the students greatly enjoyed eating their engineering creations.