Plate Tectonics Jigsaw

Anne Egger

Central Washington University (formerly at Stanford University)

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Global topography, small version
Students participate in a jigsaw activity to learn about types of plate boundaries, becoming an expert in one of five global datasets - earthquakes, volcanoes, seafloor age, topography, and gravity - and then sharing their expertise to build connections between the different datasets. Working together with real data, the students are able to determine characteristics of different types of plate boundaries. By working directly with real data, they develop a realistic and long-lasting conception of plate boundaries and the processes that occur along them.

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I use this activity during the first week of an introductory physical geology class called "Dynamic Earth". Students in the course run from first-quarter freshmen to senior engineering majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students need no background knowledge to do this activity.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a stand-alone activity during the first week of class, but I refer back to it throughout the remainder of the course. One important purpose of this activity is to get students used to the activity-based and group-work format that makes up the entire course.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

By the end of this activity, students will be able to:
- Explain the concept of plate tectonics, including types of plate boundaries, the characteristics of "typical" boundaries, and the variability seen in boundary types
- Interpret the distribution of earthquakes and volcanoes on the earth

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

By the end of this activity, students will be able to:
- Describe the difference between data and interpretation and analyze different interpretations of the same data
- Develop hypotheses based on incomplete datasets

Other skills goals for this activity

By the end of this activity, students will be able to:
- Use and interpret spatial data

Description of the activity/assignment

This activity is a slight variation on an original activity, Discovering Plate Boundaries, developed by Dale Sawyer at Rice University. I made different maps, including more detail in all of the datasets, and used a different map projection, but otherwise the general progression of the activity is the same. More information about jigsaw activities in general can be found in the Jigsaws module.

The activity occurs in several sections, which can be completed in one or multiple classes. In the first section, students are divided into "specialist" groups, and each group is given a global map with a single dataset: global seismicity, volcanoes, topography, age of the seafloor, and free-air gravity. Each student is also given a map of plate boundaries. Their task in the specialist group is to become familiar with their dataset and develop categories of plate boundaries based only on their dataset. Each group then presents their results to the class.

In the second section, students reorganize into groups with 1-2 of each type of specialist per group. Each new group is given a plate, and they combine their different datasets on that one plate and look for patterns. Again, each plate group presents to the class. The common patterns and connections between the different datasets quickly become apparent, and the final section of the activity involves a short lecture from the instructor about types of plate boundaries and why the common features are generated at those plate boundaries. A follow-up section or class involves using a problem-solving approach to explain the areas that don't "fit" into the typical boundary types - intra-plate volcanism, earthquakes in the Eastern California Shear Zone, etc.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students do not hand in materials from this activity in class. Instead, they must complete a follow-up writing assignment (see below) in which they "adopt" a plate boundary. In the writing assignment, they have to describe the features of a plate boundary of their choice, including figures they generate. The rubric for this assignment is included in the hand-out.

In addition, there are test questions later in the course where they are required to interpret a map they have never seen before and asked to characterize plate boundaries based on available data.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Students are directed to the following readings upon completion of this activity:
Plate Tectonics I: Evidence for a Revolution
Plate Tectonics II: Plates, Plate Boundaries, and Driving Forces
Both readings are available at Visionlearning

During short lectures, I use maps created from UNAVCO's Jules Verne Voyager Junior, and I direct students there for the follow-up writing assignment as well:
Jules Verne Voyager, Junior interactive map, available through the efforts of the Education and Outreach team at UNAVCO