Discovering Plate Boundaries

Dale Sawyer
Rice University Dept. of Earth Science
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This page first made public: Dec 12, 2013

Students work collaboratively using data maps to discover plate tectonic boundary processes. Data sets used are earthquakes, volcanos, seafloor age, and topography.

The authors below have submitted variations of this activity.
  • Rock-Tectonics synthesis lab Dori Farthing, SUNY Geneseo
    This lab aims to draw together rock identification and plate tectonics as well as relative age relationships. Students look at four major types of rocks and determine in which tectonic environment they were created.
  • Characterizing Plate Boundaries Bill Hirt, College of the Siskiyous
    This version presents an extensive description of how the activity can be used in an online class and how one might make adaptations of their own to use the activity in their class.
  • Plate Tectonics Jigsaw Anne Egger, Central Washington University (formerly at Stanford University)
    This version of the activity emphasizes the difference between observation and inference and demonstrates how geoscientists often must draw conclusions based on incomplete datasets. For this activity, Anne has also included more information on each the maps.
  • Geology Map Observations Stephanie S. Erickson, Saint Paul Public Schools, Washington Technology Magnet Middle School
    This version of the activity has been tailored specifically for use with 8th grade students including information about how to make the activity appropriate for English Language Learners.
  • Discovering Plate Boundaries Alison Henning, Rice University
    This version of the activity provides a description of an assessment requiring groups of students to use the knowledge they have gained in drawing plate boundaries to describe the plate boundary types surrounding a particular plate.
  • Investigating Plate Tectonics with Google Earth, Beth Pratt-Sitaula, UNAVCO
    Instead of using printed maps, this version has students conduct their observation and data collection using Google Earth. A Google Earth tutorial is also provided.
  • Using Google Earth to Explore Plate Tectonics Laurel Goodell, Department of Geosciences, Princeton University
    This version also uses Google Earth, but the instructor provides a kmz file to provide even more robust and up-to-date information for students. This version also requires students to draw a cross-section through a plate boundary so the instructor can assess whether students are correctly visualizing the processes.
  • Introduction to Plate Tectonics by Elizabeth Cochran, University of California, Riverside
    In this version, students draw several diagrams and graphs to reinforce the data presented in figures. Students are also asked to think critically about plate rates and what happens to the crust at the different plate boundaries.
  • Interpretation of plate boundaries from topography, bathymetry, volcanoes, and earthquake focal depths using Google Earth and OneNote by Jeffrey A. Nunn , Department of Geology and Geophysics, Louisiana State University
    After the initial investigation of the four different datasets, students are asked to plot a cross-section of topography/bathymetry and earthquake focal depths in OneNote and determine the type of plate boundary in this version.



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.

Download teaching materials and tips

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.

Controlled Vocabulary Terms

Subject: Geoscience:Geology:Tectonics
Resource Type: Activities:Classroom Activity:Jigsaw
Grade Level: Informal, General Public, College Upper (15-16), Intermediate (3-5), College Lower (13-14), Middle (6-8), High School (9-12)
Ready for Use: Ready to Use
Theme: Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Plate Tectonics