Taking the Pulse of Yellowstone's "Breathing" Volcano

Beth Pratt-Sitaula (EarthScope Consortium), Denise Thompson (Orting Middle School), Shelley Olds (EarthScope Consortium), Nancy West (Quarter Dome Consulting for UNAVCO)

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


In this activity, students learn about volcanism in Yellowstone National Park, focusing on its history of eruptions, recent seismicity, hydrothermal events, and ground deformation. They learn how scientists monitor volcanoes (using Mount St. Helens as an example) and then apply that as an open-ended problem to Yellowstone; their problem is to identify a site for a research station.

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This activity is intended for introductory level Earth science course such as physical geology, environmental geology, geological hazards, or geology of national parks.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should already know how to use Google Earth or an introduction can be given in a homework before the activity (see below "Tips").

How the activity is situated in the course

This project is a major component of the volcanology/volcanic hazards section of a introductory geology course. It probably would not be done at the very beginning of a course, but otherwise there is considerable flexibility.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

, Describe hazards associated with volcanic processes.
Explain the sources of energy behind volcanic processes.
Describe why and how volcanoes are monitored.
Explain the role that geodesy has played in advancing scientific understanding of volcanic hazards.
Describe how volcanic processes alter the surface of the Earth.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Analyze data spatially and temporally using Google Earth and Excel.
Use data to inform societal decisions about infrastructure development.

Other skills goals for this activity

Description and Teaching Materials

Details of the assignment are within the attached files.


Teacher Notes for Yellowstone activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 2.3MB Jul17 12)

Student Instructions for Yellowstone activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 1.5MB Jul17 12)

Google Earth Preparatory Homework (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 60kB Jul17 12)

Science of Predication: Monitoring Volcanic Activity PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 10.9MB Jul17 12)

Student data PowerPoint presentations for Yellowstone activity (zipped) (Zip Archive 26.2MB Jul17 12)

Google Earth data files (zipped) (Zip Archive 82kB Jul17 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Many teaching notes are within the Teacher Notes file posted above.

If your students do not have experience with Google Earth, have them do the Google Earth Homework as a preparation for this project. http://serc.carleton.edu/sp/library/google_earth/UserGuide.html also has excellent resources for having students work with Google Earth.


ormative assessment: The preliminary assessment is covered above. Additional formative assessment comes as you monitor student conversations and ask questions to gauge understanding.

Summative assessment: The primary final assessment will come from the presentation of results and analysis. We recommend developing a simple rubric to aid in grading whatever final project you assign. You can also engage the students in a final debrief and encourage metacogmition by asking them to describe what they have learned. Ask them to reflect on how they think or feel differently about Yellowstone, volcanoes, national parks, and so on? What do they think about the processes they followed while working on the problem?

If you asked them originally to make a concept map, ask them to revise it using a different color so that they can see how much they've learned. Similarly, if you gave them a writing prompt, give them the prompt again and, after they've written, hand back their original responses so that they can see how they have changed.