Discovering Plate Boundaries

Alison Henning
Rice University
Author Profile


Discovering Plate Boundaries is a classroom activity designed to introduce students to the process of observing and classifying data, in addition to the fundamentals of plate tectonics.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



We have used this activity with K-12 students, as well as undergraduate science and non-science majors and graduate students. Designed for a geophysics course Integrates geophysics into a core course in geology

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

This activity only requires the students to observe the data (which is often easier for younger students who have fewer preconceptions about the content). This activity can be used with a wide range of student level by only adjusting your expectations.

How the activity is situated in the course

I use this activity on the first day of all my courses, including my summer field course. It is an excellent introduction to both the process of science and plate tectonics.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The content includes observing and classifying data and using these classifications to understand different types of plate boundaries.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

We ask our students to classify data on maps according to their own classification scheme. This is often initially frustrating to students as many are not used to such "open-ended" activities.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students participate in two different groups and make oral presentations at the conclusion of the activity.

Description of the activity/assignment

Students are initially assigned to one of four maps of the world: Seismology, Volcanology, Geochronology or Topography. They are also given a map of the world's plate boundaries and are asked to classify the boundaries based upon the data from their assigned map. Students are then assigned to a tectonic plate, such that each plate group contains at least one "expert" on each map. As a group, they must classify their plate's boundaries using data from all four maps. Recent volcanic and seismic events are discussed in the plate tectonic context. Has minimal/no quantitative component Uses geophysics to solve problems in other fields

Determining whether students have met the goals

We use a check minus, check, check plus system. Check plus for those that classified the boundaries and wrote thoughtful descriptions, check for those that went through the motions but mostly missed the point, check minus for those who did not follow the instructions.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

This activity is based on an activity by Dale Sawyer titled Discovering Plate Boundaries which includes links to a detailed teacher's guide and answer key, as well as downloads of all the maps.