Exploring Tectonic Motions of Alaska & Western United States
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)
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This page first made public: May 26, 2018
Students analyze data from GPS data represented as vectors on a map of Alaska or western United States to study tectonic motions at plate boundaries and within the North American and Pacific tectonic plates. Students discover whether motion is compressing, extending, or sliding the land within each region of the plate. By observing the vector lengths and directions, students interpret the motion within Alaska or several regions of Western USA (Pacific Northwest, Basin & Range, and California). To synthesize their findings, students identify two locations most likely to have earthquakes. Students need to be able to defend their choices by providing evidence based on the tectonic motions from the map/poster and seismic hazards.
Disciplinary Core Ideas
History of Earth: HS-ESS1-5
Earth' Systems: MS-ESS2-2
Earth and Human Activity: MS-ESS3-2, HS-ESS3-1
Science and Engineering Practices
4. Analyzing and Interpreting Data
5. Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking
6. Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions
4. Systems and System Models
7. Stability and Change
Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
How the activity is situated in the course
Content/concepts goals for this activity
Learners will be able to:
- Describe how velocity vectors from GPS stations inform us about tectonic motion and plate boundaries.
- Describe and draw a velocity vector
- Analyze and describe regional plate motion data as represented as vectors.
- Interpret crustal deformation based on velocity vector map.
- Identify, discuss and defend the locations they chose that are most likely to have earthquakes.
Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Other skills goals for this activity
Description and Teaching Materials
Using a map showing the horizontal velocities of GPS stations in the Plate Boundary Observatory and other GPS networks in Alaska and Western United States, students are able to describe the motions in different regions by interpreting the vectors resulting from long-term high-precision Global Positioning System (GPS) data.
Instructor should print out copies of the Tectonic Motions poster/s that they intend to have students use: Alaska and/or Western USA. 8.5x11" versions are included in the zipped file below. Full size versions can be downloaded from UNAVCO's Tectonic Motions Posters webpage or requested from UNAVCO.
These zipped files include student exercises in docx and pdf, tectonic motions posters at 8.5x11", and seismic hazard maps for each region.
Teaching Notes and Tips
- Optionally, students can begin the activity by learning about geodesy and GPS and study a physical demonstration to understand the architecture of GPS, from satellites to sensitive stations on the ground (see animations and videos below in the References and Resources section).
- A possible extension would be to visit a nearby Plate Boundary Observatory (PBO) GPS station. Check the PBO website for the location map. There are over 1100 stations! One might be near your school.
The student exercise serves as the summative assessment for the activity. Some questions have clearly correct answers. For open-ended questions, students can be assessed based on a simple 2-point scale. 2 points = correct answer with thorough supporting evidence and/or complete description1 point = answer not completely correct or lacking thorough supporting evidence or description0 points = incorrect answer
References and Resources
- Original UNAVCO webpage for this activity
- UNAVCO Tectonic Motions Posters webpage
- Related animations and videos
- What can GPS tell us about future earthquakes?
- GPS monitors deformation in subduction zone: Part A intro
- GPS monitors deformation in subduction zone: Part B, using real data
- Access Data from Your Closest GPS station (Acrobat (PDF) 595kB Sep12 18) - 1-page document that walks through how to access GPS data from the Plate Boundary Observatory GPS Network.