Visualizing Relationships with Data: Exploring plate boundaries with Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and GPS Data in the Western U.S. & Alaska | Lessons on Plate Tectonics

Ruth Powers (Master Teacher-In-Residence), Shelley Olds (EarthScope Consortium), and Becca Walker

EarthScope Consortium logo. Concentric circles in red grading to purple.

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Learners use the GPS Velocity Viewer, or the included map packet to visualize relationships between earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate boundaries as a jigsaw activity.

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This activity was developed for middle school and high school students, grades 6 - 12. However, its focus on data makes it adaptable for introductory college courses. It's expected that this lesson will take one class session (45 - 55 minutes) or be given as homework.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be familiar with using the internet.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity can be used at any time in an earth science class. However, in the sequence of lessons about plate tectonics, it is an optional activity to use data to learn about plate tectonics.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students will be able to:

  • Describe how the locations of earthquakes, volcanoes, and velocity vectors from GPS stations inform us about plate boundary zones
  • Describe and draw a velocity vector
  • Describe the difference between a plate boundary and plate boundary zone

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Analyze regional plate motion.
  • Interpret crustal deformation based on velocity vector map.

Other skills goals for this activity

Not Applicable

Description and Teaching Materials

I This activity consists of four parts:

  • Preparing the online map for study
  • Compare and analyze earthquake and volcano locations
  • Analyze regional crustal motions using GPS Vector Data
  • Put it all together to interpret plate motions and boundary types

Lesson Resources

Student and teacher files are available as both PDF and docx formats. The zip files below contain both formats.

Materials for the Western United States

Materials for Alaska

Supporting Presentation: Visualizing Relationships with Data: Exploring plate boundaries with Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and GPS Data for the two portions of this lesson (in both PDF and PowerPoint formats) are also available. Both give background on determining and visualizing relationships between earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate tectonics for a specific area — the Western United States or Alaska. The pptx is fairly extensive. Edit as works best for your learners.


Assessment is primarily through the grading of the accompanying student worksheets.

References and Resources