Interpretation of plate boundaries from topography, bathymetry, volcanoes, and earthquake focal depths using Google Earth and OneNote

Jeffrey A. Nunn
Department of Geology and Geophysics, Louisiana State University
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  1. 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)
    • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

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  2. This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see

This page first made public: Jul 9, 2008


Students are provided with data on topography, bathymetry, locations of earthquakes and volcanoes and earthquake focal depths in Google Earth. They are asked to plot a cross-section of topography/bathymetry and earthquake focal depths in OneNote and determine the type of plate boundary.

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Introductory physical and historical geology courses for majors and non-majors. Integrates geophysics into a core course in geology Designed for an introductory geology course

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Plate tectonic boundaries and the features associated with them (topography, bathymetry, earthquake focal depths, and volcanoes)

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a stand alone laboratory exercise in our physical and historical geology laboratory courses


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Interpret the type of plate boundary from associated features (topography/bathymetry, earthquakes and volcanoes)

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

This exercise allows students to interpret real data. It allows them to see the connection between processes occurring at plate boundaries and the features observed at those boundaries (i.e., only deep earthquakes at subduction zones).

Other skills goals for this activity

Searching the WWW and working in groups

Description of the activity/assignment

Students in groups of two are giving access to the Smith and Sandwell topography/bathymetry data and USGS data on earthquakes/volcanoes locations through Google Earth. They are then asked to create a cross-section of topography/bathymetry and earthquake focal depths perpendicular to the plate boundary using OneNote. They then interpret the type of plate boundary. This activity gives students practice in interpreting data, analyzing uncertainty and error in data, and peer teaching. Uses online and/or real-time data, has minimal/no quantitative component.

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

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students turn in a digital report showing their OneNote cross-sections and their interpretation. Students also take a short pre- and post-test to see if they have learned basic concepts about plate tectonics.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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