Science & Technology: Grades 9-12

So That's How It Works! Understanding The Science Behind The Empire State Building

Overview of Lesson Plan:

In this lesson, students investigate a scientific or technological fact about the Empire State Building and explain how it works.

Suggested Time Allowance: 1 hour


Students will:

  • Contemplate the words "Skyscraper" and "Foundation."
  • Take part in an experiment about weight and support.
  • Investigate answers to scientific or technological questions applicable to the Empire State Building.
  • Create presentations that will explain how the occurrences work.


  • student journals
  • pens/pencils
  • paper
  • classroom board
  • resources on the Empire State Building, skyscrapers, engineering structure and design, science and technology textbooks
  • six cups (paper or plastic, 6-7oz.) taped prior to class (two taped together vertically to represent one building, and four taped together vertically to represent a second)
  • a ruler
  • weighted material (for example, 30 pennies or salt, sand, or soil)
  • a notebook, folder, or magazine for fanning purposes


  1. WARM-UP/DO-NOW: Ask students to web the word "Skyscraper." Allow a few minutes for them to write down whatever ideas they associate with skyscraper. Then ask them to web a second word: "Foundation." When they are finished brainstorming, ask for volunteers to share. Facilitate a brief discussion on skyscrapers: why they are built, which are the most famous, what problems they might face.
  2. Tell the class that they are to find the information to answer these questions: How does the foundation of a skyscraper work? Why doesn't a skyscraper tip over in strong winds?

    Assemble the cups on a table and tell the students that the following experiment will demonstrate why skyscrapers are able to remain standing and why they don't tip over in strong winds.


    1. Stand the cup buildings side by side.
    2. Ask students to make a prediction about what will happen when you gently fan these two structures. These answers are their hypotheses.
    3. Standing one foot away, gently fan the structures until one falls. Do this a few times to see if this result repeats itself. Was the class' prediction correct? Ask the class how to make the taller structure stand longer.
    4. Remove the tape from the bottom cup of the taller structure and add weight to it (pennies, sand, salt, or soil). What is the class' prediction now? Repeat the experiment. (Each time you conduct the experiment, add more weight)

    Ask the class to explain what happened in the experiment. Why did adding weight to the bottom cup keep the taller structure from falling over? (A skyscraper's foundation acts as an anchor to keep the building from tipping over in high winds.)

  3. Divide the class into groups of four. Assign each group a question from the list below (more than one group may answer the same question):
    • Will a penny thrown off of the Empire State Building make a hole in the sidewalk?
    • What does it mean that the building and tower "gives" in high winds?
    • Why does lightning strike the Empire State Building 100 times a year? Why doesn't this affect those inside the building?
    • Why do your ears pop when you are going up in the elevator? How can you ease your discomfort? And why does it work?
    • Why don't earthquakes hit New York City?
    • What kind of stone is Manhattan Island made up of to make it strong enough to support so many skyscrapers? What other types of stones or sedimentary rock would not have been as workable?
    • How does a radio or TV antenna operate? How can the Empire State Building's tower emit so many different stations' signals at once without their interfering with one another?
    • Why didn't the Empire State Building collapse when a plane hit it in 1945?
    • Why does snow fall upward at the top of the Empire State Building?

    Using available resources, each group should research the answer to its assigned question. Groups should find or create experiments (similar to the one they just witnessed) that explain and illustrate the answers. Have each group then prepare a demonstration/experiment or a how-it-works poster to present the answer to their question before the rest of the class.

    Students will make their presentations in the next class.

  4. WRAP-UP/HOMEWORK: For homework, students should prepare their portions of the group presentation. Two students should work on the visual presentation (whether demonstration or poster), while the remaining members of the group write the script for the oral presentation. Each member needs to be familiar with the question's answer to participate in the Q&A session following the group presentations.

Further Questions for Discussion:

  • Of the questions being researched by the class, which do you think the designers of the Empire State Building knew the answer to before they built the building, and which do you think they found out after it was built? Why?
  • What major inventions made skyscrapers a reality? (For example, elevators)
  • To what other questions about the Empire State Building would you like to find the answers?


Students will be evaluated based on participation in the initial exercise, as well as thoughtful participation in small group research and presentations.


disperse, force, gravity, hypothesis, phenomenon, pressure, sediment

Extension Activities:

1. Powering the Empire State Building costs around $15 million each year. What methods could be incorporated to make powering the building most cost-effective? Research alternative power sources, such as fuel cells or solar energy, which might offer a better option to a huge skyscraper like the Empire State Building. Develop a proposal that details how this energy system works, how it would be used in the building, and why it is a better option than traditional energy choices.

2. Compare the engineering and labor techniques used to construct the Empire State Building with those used to build modern skyscrapers. Are buildings still designed and built the same way? Look at a variety of aspects of construction, from framework and lifting systems (elevators, cranes) to the use of materials such as concrete and steel. Create a presentation comparing a modern skyscraper with the Empire State Building.

Author: Javaid Khan, The Bank Street College of Education, New York City


Disperse v. To distribute; to spread.

Force n. Strength or power exerted upon an object.

Gravity n. The force of attraction by which objects tend to fall toward the center of the earth.

Hypothesis n. 1. A tentative explanation for an observation, phenomenon, or scientific problem that can be tested by further investigation. 2. An educated guess.

Phenomenon n. An unusual, significant, or unaccountable fact or occurrence; a marvel.

Pressure n. The exertion of force upon a surface by an object, fluid, etc.

Sediment n. 1. The matter which subsides to the bottom, from water or any other liquid. 2. The material of which sedimentary rocks are formed.

Academic Content Standards:

This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from "Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 3rd and 4th Editions" and have been provided courtesy of the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning in Aurora, Colorado.

Technology: Level IV [9-12]
Standard 3. Understands the relationships among science, technology, society, and the individual
Benchmark 1. Knows that science and technology are pursued for different purposes (e.g., scientific inquiry is driven by the desire to understand the natural world and seeks to answer questions that may or may not directly influence humans; technology is driven by the need to meet human needs and solve human problems)
Benchmark 8. Knows the role of technology in a variety of careers

Standard 10. Understands forces and motion
Benchmark 6. Knows how different kinds of materials respond to electric forces
Benchmark 8. Knows that laws of motion can be used to determine the effects of forces on the motion of objects

Standard 11. Understands the nature of scientific knowledge
Benchmark 1. Knows ways in which science distinguishes itself from other ways of knowing and from other bodies of knowledge
Benchmark 2. Knows that scientific explanations must meet certain criteria to be considered valid
Benchmark 3. Understands how scientific knowledge changes and accumulates over time
Benchmark 4. Knows that from time to time, major shifts occur in the scientific view of how the world works, but usually the changes that take place in the body of scientific knowledge are small modifications of prior knowledge
Benchmark 5. Understands different types of scientific explanations (e.g., theories, laws, hypotheses) and their usefulness and limitations
Benchmark 6. Understands criteria (e.g., accuracy of predictions, appropriateness, limitations, usefulness) used to evaluate a model's representation of the real world
Benchmark 7. Knows that science is based on assumptions about the universe

Standard 12. Understands the nature of scientific inquiry
Benchmark 1. Understands the use of hypotheses in scientific investigations
Benchmark 2. Designs and conducts scientific investigations
Benchmark 3. Evaluates the results of scientific investigations, experiments, observations, theoretical and mathematical models, and explanations proposed by other scientists
Benchmark 4. Uses technology
Benchmark 5. Knows that conceptual principles and knowledge guide scientific inquiries; historical and current scientific knowledge influence the design and interpretation of investigations and the evaluation of proposed explanations made by other scientists
Benchmark 6. Knows that scientists conduct investigations for a variety of reasons
Benchmark 7. Knows that investigations and public communication among scientists must meet certain criteria in order to result in new knowledge and methods