Skyscrapers and Wind Velocity: An Inquiry Based Science Project

Engineering has always been of interest to my daughter. She has enjoyed building toothpick bridges, marveling at skyscrapers when we have traveled to major urban areas, and writing letters to civil engineers to learn more about their work.

Earlier this year, I shared with you an STEM Club activity I put together that focused on the Newspaper Towers & Skyscrapers. My daughter enjoyed this activity so much that she expanded upon it for a homeschool science fair.

One of the tallest buildings in the world is the Shanghai World Financial Center, located in the Pudong district of Shanghai. At the time of its completion in 2008, its 492.0 meters (1,614.2 ft) made it the second-tallest building in the world and the tallest structure in mainland China. The observation deck offers views from 474 m (1,555 ft) above ground level and we had the opportunity to experience this earlier this year.

In April, she took part in the CurrClick Earth Day Science Fair and it was of no surprise when she expressed interest in doing something with skyscrapers. I tried to dissuade her, knowing it would be difficult to design a fair test that resulted in measurable results. Despite the mis-givings of her tutor and I, she was not deterred.

Research & Project Planning

She researched numerous skyscrapers around the world and ultimately settled upon three for her design inspiration: the Empire State Building in New York City, the Cayan Tower in the United Arab Emirates, and the Trans America Building in San Francisco.  Each design was significantly different and through her research, she came up with her experimental question: How Does the Design of a Building Affect the Sway Under Different Wind Velocities?

Testing: Design, Wind Velocity, and Sway

She calculated a scale with which to build each model (1/4″ = 1 m). Using three identical boxes as a stable ground upon which to build, she constructed her skyscrapers with rolls of newspaper and wooden skewers as the frame. She then wrapped newspaper around the frame and secured it with tape.

The Cayan tower proved to be the most difficult to build for its design required it to rotate 90 degrees. Despite considerable effort, we could only get our paper model to rotate about 35-40 degrees.

To test the sway, she used a large fan to generate wind at different velocities, being careful to keep the distance and the aim consistent. To measure the wind speed, she used a Kestrel wind meter.

Results

She discovered right away that the sway of each building was so small that it was not possible to measure consistently.  She thereby changed focus and began to take wind speed measurements at different places next to each building, comparing how the wind velocity was altered due to the design of the building.

I was very impressed with her tenacity to see this project through, despite numerous setbacks and disappointments. She persevered and despite not getting an outcome for which she had hoped, she learned how to set a goal, plan a significant project on her own, how to gather scientific data, and the process by which to present it to others.

Many parents will contend that science fair projects are more of a headache than they are worth.  Join me next week when I share tips for coaching your student through the process without losing your hair.

If you are interested in coordinating a science fair for your homeschool community, I encourage you to read my earlier post, Planning a Fun Science Fair in 10 Easy Steps.

To learn more about skyscrapers and to explore the field of engineering with you students, check out my Engineering Unit Study: World’s Tallest Buildings.