University partners with Discovery Museum to create Seismic Challenge

National Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation joins challenge to provide K-12 students a creative introduction into engineering field

7/26/2012 | By: Megan Akers  |

An innovative challenge is promoting K-12 students' interest in the engineering field. The University of Nevada, Reno's Civil and Environmental Engineering Department has collaborated with the Terry Lee Wells Nevada Discovery Museum in downtown Reno to host the Seismic Challenge.

The Seismic Challenge requires participants to design and build a structure and then test it on a shake table. The shake table re-enacts the forces of historical earthquakes, including the powerful Northridge event in California and Kobe event in Japan. The creative twist to the challenge is that participants must build their structures using only toothpicks and gumdrops or balsa wood.

In a series of three separate challenges in July, participants build and test their structures. The first two challenges, held July 21, reached maximum participant capacity.

"The first challenges were a huge success," Kelly Lyttle, civil and environmental engineering program coordinator, said. "The kids seemed to learn a lot about the importance of designing strong buildings to resist earthquakes and had a great time doing so."

Lyttle, who designed the challenge rules and ran the competition at the Nevada Discovery Museum, thought creating a seismic-based activity would be an effective and engaging way of teaching students about the possibilities in the engineering field. Lyttle participated in competitions similar to the Seismic Challenge during her undergraduate program at the University, and thought it would be a great idea to develop an educational challenge for K-12 students that could be shared with other museums and universities.

"This collaboration not only introduces kids to the field of engineering, but will allow us to tell them about other activities on campus, such as engineering summer camps," Lyttle said. "It additionally allows us to engage the general public and show them the importance of civil engineering."

The Seismic Challenge is divided into four age groups and students sign up for a specific time slot. Children can sign up individually and be paired with a partner, or can enter in teams of two or more. The next challenge takes place July 28 and 29, beginning at 10 a.m. on July 28.

The Seismic Challenge is also supported by the George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES). The University of Nevada, Reno earthquake simulation facility is managed as a national shared-use NEES equipment site created and funded by the National Science Foundation to provide new earthquake engineering research testing capabilities for large structural systems.

To learn more and sign up for the Seismic Challenge, visit the Nevada Discovery Museum website at or email


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