Investigating Plate Tectonics with Google Earth

class='author'>Beth Pratt-Sitaula, UNAVCO
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Initial Publication Date: June 1, 2012 | Reviewed: January 17, 2015


Students examine data sets of topography, bathymetry, volcano location, earthquake location and size, and ocean floor age in Google Earth to determine the location and attributes of different types of plate tectonic boundaries. It helps them build their understanding of plate tectonics from data rather then from lecture.

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Developed for introductory level "earth science & society course" for honors college students. Could be used in most any introductory geoscience course, but it may take more time with non-honors-level students.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students have read about plate tectonic boundaries from USGS's Dynamic Earth or a text book and had short lecture on the topic with demonstrations. One topic I emphasized was that plate tectonics is driven by downward pull of descending tectonic plates. They have completed two short homework assignments prior to doing this activity.
  1. Short familiarization exercise with Google Earth (see below)
  2. The Math You Need module on unit conversions (module on rates may also have been appropriate).
(The need for this could be eliminated by removing the calculation questions from the assignment. I was using these exercises to underpin quantitative skills needed in later assignments.)

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity is early in the first half of the course. It is the first larger assignment for credit. The understanding of plate tectonics gained in this exercise underpins the earthquakes and related hazards section of the course.

Prior to jumping into the assignment, the class has had a discussion (a gallery walk works well) about what they KNOW about plate tectonics and geohazards and what they WANT to know about these topics. We discuss how prepared (or generally underprepared) they feel to ensure the safety of themselves and their families/friends. It generally comes out that few students are confident about their understanding of the regions geology and hazards (other than very vague ideas about volcanoes and earthquakes). I highlight how plate tectonics is the binding theory that helps us understand the type of geology in so many parts of the world and it can help us be better prepared for geohazards and other geoscience issues.

I did teach this as part of a "flipped" course in which students had relatively little "lecturing" by me. They had outlines by me to help guide their readings but most of the time in class was spent in group activities and projects. However, I do not think that is necessary for this activity, which could also be done during a more standard lab period.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students will be able to:

  • Define different types of plate tectonic boundaries by using data sets such as volcanoes, earthquakes, topographic and bathymetric profiles, and sea floor age.
  • Apply known characteristics of plate boundaries to identify other boundaries and their frequency world wide.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to analyze multiple geoscience data sets to determine the attributes at different types of plate boundaries.
  • Given an unfamiliar boundary, students will be able to identify what type it is by analyzing its characteristics.
  • Based on earthquake data, students will be able to determine which boundaries have the greatest earthquake hazard.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to work successfully groups to produce a single final product.
  • Students will be able to use basic Google Earth functions.
  • Students will be able to support scientific statements with evidence and explanations (in writing).

Description and Teaching Materials

In the activity, students analyze data sets in Google Earth and work through a series of questions that help scaffold them through the task: determine the location and attributes of different plate tectonic boundaries around the globe.

The files below contain a Google Earth familiarization exercise, the main activity file, the associated Google Earth data files, and two animations.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students work in teams of three or four. Washington State University does not have computer labs anymore, so student teams were required to have at least one laptop (two are recommended). In other institutions, the activity could be done in a computer lab. I strongly recommended that the team group around a single laptop for viewing Google Earth, but that a second laptop be used for filling in the answers as they go. Having the students break the assignment into sections and have different pairs finish each half, appears to be less effective for student learning. The students had one 75-minute class periods to finish the assignment. Some groups finished during that time and some had to meet outside class.

The currently attached assignment is revised from the single time I have taught with it. Overall, I do think the assignment was effective but there seemed to be some uncertainty about how detailed to make the answers, so I tried to be more explicit. I tried adding the final map that I ask them to annotate as a sort of summative visual assessment rather than the written questions I had previously.


Formative: During the course of the activity I circulated among the students asking question and keeping tabs on their progress and understanding.

Summative: I looked for correctness of answers on the assignment. The annotations on the various images were particularly helpful for revealing linger misconceptions. Similarly, the questions where students had to explain and defend their statements usually revealed whether they were understanding things as intended.

References and Resources