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Mapping Plate Boundaries

Rurik Johnson (Plymouth Middle School)
This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


This exercise is intended to have the students discover plate boundaries based on the uneven geographic occurrence of geologic hazards. After discussing geologic hazards, have the students plot dfferent sets of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on maps. If you have a large class, don't use whole-world maps, use hemispheric ones so one half of the groups can do eastern hemisphere and the other western hemisphere. It takes about ten or fifteen minutes in the middle of lecture. When they hand back the overheads, and you stack them up (one hemisphere at a time) and set them on the projector. The lecture can then move from geologic hazards to plate tectonics. The important thing is for the students to discover the plates rather than to be shown them.

Learning Goals

This lesson enables students to:

Context for Use

The lecture described below should take about an hour and is intended for an introductory geology class.

Teaching Materials

For this exercise, the instructor will need:

Lecture briefly on geologic hazards: earthquakes and volcanoes, and show overheads of recent news articles. Ask the class if some areas are more susceptible to earthquakes or volcanoes than others. After a think-pair-share (TPS) session of a minute, they'll probably remark that Japan and California seem to have a lot of earthquakes, there are volcanoes in Italy, Hawaii, etc. So, time for another TPS session: why are those areas so geologically hazardous. The responses here will give you an idea of the students' prior knowledge about plate tectonics and boundary types.

Give each student pair a copy of a map printed on a transparency, an overhead marker, and a list of data. For a small class, give students a map of the whle world and each pair should have a different set of data. For a large class, divide the class into east and west and give half Eastern Hemisphere maps and half Western Hemisphere maps. Make two copies of each data table and give a different subset to each pair within a hemisphere, with a warning only to plot data points in their hemisphere. Give the students 10-15 minutes to plot their data, then collect the overheads. Stack up all overheads of a given map (world, Eastern hemisphere, or Western hemisphere) and tell the students about the names of the plates, hotspots, and different types of boundaries.

Teaching Notes and Tips

A lot of volcanic/earthquake data web sites insist on showing the user the data on a map, which somewhat ruins the discovery effect of the lesson, so you probably want to print out data for the students rather than project it onto a screen. Some students may need to be reminded how to deal with latitude and longitude data on a map.



References and Resources

Volcano and Earthquake data:

Once the plate boundaries are discovered by your students, there are many wonderful things for them to learn about plate tectonics.


Geoscience:Geology:Tectonics, Environmental Science:Natural Hazards:Earthquakes, Volcanism, Environmental Science:Ecosystems:Biogeochemical cycling, Geography:Physical, Geospatial

Resource Type

Datasets and Tools:Datasets with Teaching Activities, Activities:Classroom Activity

Special Interest

GIS, Hazards, Data, models, or simulations

Grade Level

College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level

Ready for Use

Ready to Use

Earth System Topics

Biosphere:Ecology, Geography, Solid Earth:Earthquakes, Volcanoes, Plate Tectonics, Human Dimensions:Natural Hazards


Energy/Material cycles, Earth surface, Solid Earth


Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Volcanoes, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Biogeoscience, Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Earthquakes, Teach the Earth:Incorporating Societal Issues:Hazards, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:GIS/Remote Sensing, Teach the Earth:Teaching Topics:Plate Tectonics, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Environmental Science

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