Discovering Plate Boundaries

Dale Sawyer
Rice University Dept. of Earth Science
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Students work collaboratively using data maps to discover plate tectonic boundary processes. Data sets used are earthquakes, volcanos, seafloor age, and topography.

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I have used this with students in grades 5-12, with college geology and non-geology majors, and with pre- and in-service teachers.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered:

They should have an idea what earthquakes and volcanos are. They should have an idea what maps are. They should know about continents and oceans and generally where the largest continents and oceans are located.

How the activity is situated in the course:

I use DPB early in a course, at the beginning of teaching plate tectonics, and before students have been given a reading assignment on plate tectonics.

National or State Education Standards addressed by this activity?:

Both National and Texas standards include the teaching of plate tectonics as a framework for understanding earth history and natural hazards.


Content/concepts goals for this activity:

Discovering the basic types of plate tectonic boundaries and characterizing them using modern observations. Linking plate boundary processes to the observations.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity:

They must invent and apply a classification scheme for fairly complex data.

Other skills goals for this activity:

They must describe their data classifications in writing and orally. Each student must give a brief oral presentation. They must work in groups.

Description of the activity/assignment

The exercise is built around 4 global data maps: 1) Earthquake location and depth, 2) Location of recent volcanic activity, 3) Seafloor Age, and 4) Topography and Bathymetry
The exercise is based on the "jigsaw" concept, mixing the students to work in different groups during the exercise. DPB includes opportunities for all students to make oral presentations to their fellow students. The exercise is done over about 3 hours. I usually do it in 50 minute periods on three separate days, but it can also be done in a three hour lab period.
Although the data used in DPB are state-of-the-art, the exercise does not depend on student access to computers. Unlike many others, this exercise is based on observation and classification, rather than learning computer data manipulation skills.

The students enjoy DPB and many report it as the best activity of their semester! I hope that you will find it useful in your classroom!

Determining whether students have met the goals

The key to assessing learning in this exercise is having appropriate expectations for students of different age. I expect more insightful classifications and discriptions from college students than from middle school students. However, because the exercise is based on observation and thinking more than on prior knowledge, I am often surprised that young students do very well!
I have the students turn in their 2 annotated plate boundary maps as they leave. I usually grade these in a very simplified way. I give them a zero, check minus, check, or check plus for each map. Check minus reflects very little or careless work on the map. Check plus reflects an above average product relative to the age and ability of the students.

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Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Sawyer et al. (2005). A Data Rich Exercise for Discovering Plate Boundary Processes . Journal of Geoscience Education, 53(1),65.