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Shake, Rattle and Roll

Written by: Allison Preston

Inspiration from devastation is a powerful tool that has led Yenan Cao to explore the properties of earthquakes. In the summer of 2008, Cao, a recent high school graduate, was stunned by the level of destruction following the 8.0-magnitude earthquake that struck China’s Sichuan Province. Nearly 90,000 people lost their lives and hundreds of buildings were destroyed. He wondered why the area was so poorly prepared for a natural disaster, which piqued his interest in studying civil engineering.

Yenan Cao

As a Ph.D. candidate in Notre Dame’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering & Earth Sciences, Cao’s research focuses on engineering seismology and earthquake engineering. He explores how earthquakes occur, and aims to understand the impact they have on structures close to the epicenter.

“Earthquakes happen every day around the world, but the vast majority of them are so small or remote that they hardly affect society,” says Cao. “However, if a large earthquake occurs in a populous area, it can cause massive casualties and economic losses.”

After the Sichuan earthquake, roughly 5 million people became homeless overnight, and the structural damage led to more than $122 billion in economic loss. Similar effects have unfolded in Mexico after an 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck on September 8, followed by a 7.1-magnitude quake on September 19. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates up to $10 billion in economic losses from the disaster. Aside from studying the topic himself, Cao is also interested in educating others on the importance of constructing resilient buildings and infrastructure.

“Awareness should not be limited solely to engineers,” says Cao. “Earthquakes affect every aspect of human life.”

Education & Outreach

As part of his interest in public education, Cao has served as President of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI) chapter at Notre Dame. The program allows members to discuss new innovations and developments in earthquake engineering. They also lead educational seminars and interactive labs for local students.

Recently, Cao and fellow EERI members partnered with Avilla Elementary School, providing students with the opportunity to create earthquake-proof structures as part of “Shakes & Quakes.” LEGOs and K’Nex were used to bridge the gap between graduate and elementary students as they learned how buildings and bridges respond to these natural disasters.

“The students were incredibly enthusiastic,” says Cao.

To test their new design and construction knowledge, students also competed in “Shake Off Day.” Roughly 60 students in fifth and sixth grades were divided into construction company teams and assigned roles such as architect, engineer, builder, and building owner.

“They would have to learn to work together to fulfill their respective duties without compromising any of their teammates’ goals,” says Cao.

To make the activity as realistic as possible, each team had to follow specific rules. EERI members served as mentors and led discussions on the risks of earthquakes, and best practices for building.

“These regulations helped them to understand how important efficiency, cost, strength, appearance, and constructability are to any project.”

On Shake Off Day, Cao had the chance to see the students put their new knowledge into action as their buildings were tested on EERI’s simulated shaking table.

Yenan photo

“It was great fun not only for the students involved but for the EERI-UND members,” says Cao.

The program is an interactive way for kids to learn about civil engineering and recognize the important role it plays in their daily lives. So far, EERI has partnered with over six schools in the area.

Further Studies

Cao is currently working on his dissertation, which investigates the characteristics of earthquake-induced dynamic ground deformations such as strain, rocking, and torsion, and how this impacts engineering structures. Cao is using an interdisciplinary approach that ranges from the description of an earthquake source, to ground motion simulation and structural responses.

The devastation from China’s 2008 earthquake continues to be the motivation for his research, and he hopes his findings lead to improved building codes. He also hopes his research will lead to a reduction in the risk of structural damage during earthquakes, saving lives and buildings, as well as saving cities from severe economic loss.

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