Hot spot volcanism in western North America

James Trexler
University of Nevada, Reno
Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: November 21, 2008 | Reviewed: November 2, 2013


Students use real data on age of volcanism and ash thickness distribution to better understand hot spot volcanic activity.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



Introductory level geology

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Beginning map reading, map scales, the concept of contouring data, interpolation, mathematical averages.

How the activity is situated in the course

The lab project is used in the latter half of a unit on volcanoes.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Goals include calculation of tectonic plate motion rates from isotopic age data, and volcanic ash distribution from large hot-spot eruptions.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Both parts of this lab require students to assess data that is recorded as a range of values. Students must decide whether arithmetic averages give reasonable answers. The contouring part of the exercise involves interpolation.

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

This lab project is in two parts. In the first part students are given a map of Snake River Plain volcanic centers with a range of dates of eruptions. Based on what they know about hot-spot tracks, they use the map and reported isotopic ages to calculate a range of values for the relative velocities of the North American Plate and the Yellowstone hot spot. In the second part, students are given a map of the distribution of a volcanic ash from the Yellowstone volcanic field, with thickness of the ash where known. Students are asked to contour the map to show how the ash is distributed, and think about the factors that affect that thickness, both during and after the eruption. In both parts of the lab students have to deal with real data that is incomplete in some cases, and usually occurs as a range of values. Students must make decisions about how to treat incomplete data sets that do not have absolute values.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Written reports are graded based on completeness, and whether calculated values fall within reasonable limits (key included in file below). Classroom discussion during the exercise helps students get more comfortable with incomplete data sets.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials