Teach the Earth > Geophysics > Teaching Activities > Introduction to Plate Tectonics

Introduction to Plate Tectonics

Elizabeth Cochran
University of California, Riverside
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Jul 31, 2007


Uses maps created in Google Earth to explore concepts of plate tectonics including locations of plate boundaries, age of the sea floor, and distribution of earthquakes

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This lab activity could be used for an introductory earth science/physical geology/earthquakes course for non-majors. Designed for an introductory geology course

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Lectures prior to the lab should have covered the basics of plate tectonics, including the different types of plate boundaries.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a stand-alone exercise typically given near the beginning of the course in either discussion or lab section.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students synthesize several datasets to determine the characteristics and locations of plate boundaries Students will be able to predict the type of tectonic plate boundary using bathymetry, earthquake, volcano, and sea floor age data. Students will be able to predict plate rates and plate directions by examining an unfamiliar plate setting.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The students must interpret several sets of data to determine where the plate boundaries are located. Requires the students to 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 at the different plate boundaries

Other skills goals for this activity

Students can pursue more information and interact with the data by downloading (free) Google Earth and various data sets. This lab could be transferred into a computer based lab quite easily if computer lab facilities are available for discussion/lab sections.

Description of the activity/assignment

In this lab students interpret bathymetric, topography, sea floor ages, and earthquake distributions to reinforce concepts about the different types of plate boundaries. Each student must interpret several sets of data to determine the location and type of plate boundary. To develop a set of basic analytical skills, the 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. This activity uses online and/or real-time data and has minimal/no quantitative component.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Based on the answers students give to the questions it will be clear what remaining misconceptions student have about the concepts of plate tectonics.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Download teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Most data is downloaded from the Google Earth Community pages, including sea floor ages, topo/bath, plate boundaries
Topo and Bathymetery data originally from:
Earthquake data created from M4.5 and greater earthquakes for the first 6 months of 2006 using catalogs from the USGS.

View a complete set of data for this lab in Google Earth format.

This activity is a variation on an original activity, Discovering Plate Boundaries developed by Dale Sawyer at Rice University.

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