Teach the Earth > Structural Geology > Structure, Geophysics, and Tectonics 2012 > Teaching Activities > Investigating Plate Tectonics with Google Earth

Investigating Plate Tectonics with Google Earth

Beth Pratt-Sitaula, UNAVCO

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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Exemplary Teaching Collection

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This page first made public: Jun 1, 2012


Students examine data sets of topography, bathymetry, volcano location, earthquake location and size, and ocean floor age in Google Earth to determine the location and attributes of different types of plate tectonic boundaries.



Developed for introductory level earth science and society course for honors college students. Could be used in most any introductory geoscience course, but it may take more time with non-honors-level students.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students have read about plate tectonic boundaries from USGS's Dynamic Earth pdf and had short lecture on the topic with demonsrtation. One topic I emphasized was that plate tectonics is driven by downward pull of descending tectonic plates.
They have completed two short homework assignments prior to doing this activity.
1) Short familiarization exercise with Google Earth.
2) The Math You Need module on unit conversions (module on rates would also have been appropriate). http://serc.carleton.edu/mathyouneed/index.html
(The need for this could be eliminated by removing the calculation questions from the assignment. I was using these exercises to underpin quantitative skills needed in later assignments.)

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity is early in the first half of the course. It is the first larger assignment for credit. The understanding of plate tectonics gained in this exercise underpins the earthquakes and related hazards section of the course.

Prior to jumping into the assignment, the class has had a discussion (a gallery walk works well) about what they KNOW about plate tectonics and geohazards and what they WANT to know about these topics. We discuss how prepared (or generally underprepared) they feel to ensure the safety of themselves and their families/friends. It generally comes out that few students are confident about their understanding of the regions geology and hazards (other than very vague ideas about volcanoes and earthquakes). I highlight how plate tectonics is the binding theory that helps us understand the type of geology in so many parts of the world and it can help us be better prepared for geohazards and other geoscience issues.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students will know the different types and characteristics of plate tectonic boundaries.
Students will know the basic locations and frequency of different types of plate boundaries.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students will be able to analyze multiple geoscience data sets to determine the attributes at different types of plate boundaries.
Given an unfamiliar boundary, students will be able to identify what type it is by analyzing its characteristics.
Based on earthquake data, students will be able to determine which boundaries have the greatest earthquake hazard.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students will be able to work successfully groups to produce a single final product.
Students learn basic Google Earth functions.
Students supporting scientific statements with evidence and explanations (in writing).

Description and Teaching Materials

In the activity, students analyze data sets in Google Earth and work through a series of questions that help scaffold them through the task: determine the location and attributes of different plate tectonic boundaries around the globe.

The files below contain the main activity file, a Google Earth familiarization exercise, the associated Google Earth data files, and two animations.

If an instructor is interested in obtaining the answer sheet, they can email me directly (psitaula@geology.cwu.edu or bethsitaula@gmail.com).

The activity received original inspiration from existing SERC activities by Elizabeth Cochran (http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/geophysics/activities/19435.html) and Jeffrey A. Nunn (http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/geophysics/activities/25082.html

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

An alternative to my Google Earth intro exercise could be: Introduction to Google Earth by Liane M. Stevens

Investigating Plate Tectonics with Google Earth assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 238kB May15 12)
Google Earth data files and supporting animations (Zip Archive 32.8MB May15 12)
Getting started w/ Google Earth homework (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 57kB May15 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students work in teams of three or four. WSU does not have computer labs anymore, so student teams were required to have at least one laptop (two are recommended). In other institutions, the activity could be done in a computer lab. I strongly recommended that the team group around a single laptop for viewing Google Earth, but that a second laptop be used for filling in the answers as they go. Having the students break the assignment into sections and have different pairs finish each half, appears to be less effective for student learning. The students had two 75-minute class periods to finish the assignment. Some groups finished during that time and some had to meet outside class.

The currently attached assignment is revised from the single time I have taught with it. Overall, I do think the assignment was effective but there seemed to be some uncertainty about how detailed to make the answers, so I tried to be more explicit. I tried adding the final map that I ask them to annotate as a sort of summative visual assessment rather than the written questions I had previously.


I looked for correctness of answers on the assignment. The annotations on the various images were particularly helpful for revealing linger misconceptions. Similarly, the questions where students had to explain and defend their statements usually revealed whether they were understanding things as intended.

References and Resources

Download Google Earth at: http://www.google.com/earth/index.html

The animations associated with this assignment are not copyrighted and can be freely downloaded at http://emvc.geol.ucsb.edu/.

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