Fault Models for Teaching About Plate Tectonics

Modified from an activity by Larry Braile (Purdue University) by TOTLE (Teachers on the Leading Edge) Project and further improved by ShakeAlert.


This short interactive activity has learners manipulate fault blocks to better understand different types of earthquake-generating faults in different tectonic settings--extensional, convergent, and strike-slip. Fault models aid in visualizing and understanding faulting and plate motions because the educator and their learners can manipulate a three-dimensional model for a true hands-on experience.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This activity could be done with most any novice geoscience learning group from late elementary and up. It can also work for informal education or public outreach venues as a demonstration or interactive.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

It is best if the learners have some knowledge of the existence of plate tectonics and earthquakes. They could have had a previous introduction to the three types of plate tectonic boundaries or this activity could be used as a lead-in to learning about the boundaries more formally.

How the activity is situated in the course

As a scheduled lesson, do this activity fairly early in learning about plate tectonics and earthquakes. However, keep the fault blocks handy -- they are great to pull out at any time to demonstrate the basic types of motion: normal/extension, reverse/compression, strike-slip/shear.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Learners should be able to demonstrate and explain how different types of plate motion (divergent, convergent, and horizontal) lead different faults (normal, reverse, and strike-slip) and geologic features.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Not applicable

Other skills goals for this activity

Using physical models

Description and Teaching Materials


See attached file for educator notes, NGSS alignment, and student exercise.

Fault Models Activity (Acrobat (PDF) 793kB Sep2 22)

Supporting presentation/audiovisual

Teaching Notes and Tips

The fault blocks can be made from a variety of materials including foam, wood, and cardboard. They can also be purchased from some educational suppliers. The important element is that the fault surfaces be smooth and slide easily.


The student exercise serves as the summative assessment for the activity. Alternatively, if rock tongs are being used for a demonstration or informal interactive activity, questions and discussions with learners can help the presenter gauge the level of understanding and help address misconceptions.

References and Resources