Plate Tectonics: Earth in Motion

Time required to complete this unit:

This page is under development and may be edited at any time. Some resources have not been cataloged, pending project approval.

3 weeks, or 12.5 hours, or 750 minutes (estimated)

Earth Science Content:

Key Terms: Plate tectonics, geosphere, volcano, earthquake, divergent boundary, convergent boundary, transform boundary, core, mantle, crust, rift, subduction, lithosphere, asthenosphere, mid-ocean ridge, hotspot, sea-floor spreading, heat transfer, convection, mantle plume, normal fault, reverse fault, dip-slip fault, strike-slip fault, transform fault, fault plane, hanging wall, foot wall, gravity fault, epicenter, seismicity, hydrothermal, caldera

Unit Storyline

Our Earth is a restless and dynamic planet. From the tallest mountain peaks of the crust to the very center of the core, Earth is in constant motion. Many features at the surface result from the movements of tectonic plates and deformation in response to flow of the mantle beneath the crust. The theory of plate tectonics provides a framework for understanding processes at plate boundaries that give rise to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, uplift mountain ranges to dramatically transform the landscape, and open and close ocean basins. From a human's perspective, changes at Earth's surface may appear to occur at a snail's pace. However, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions can produce rapid and even catastrophic change. Plate tectonics also helps explain the distribution of natural resources, including some metal ores associated with hydrothermal vents found at mid-ocean ridges or brought to the surface by volcanic activity.

Interactions between the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, biosphere, and geosphere also reshape Earth's landscape on time scales ranging from minutes to eons. These changes are considered in a different unit.

Developed by the DIG Texas Education Interns and the Central Texas, Coastal Bend, and North Texas, Development Teams

Students will be able to (do)

  • Examine the evidence and methods used to develop and refine the theory of plate tectonics.
  • Locate and download EarthScope GPS data.
  • Draw conclusions about plate motion by analyzing various types of data sets.
  • Distinguish the different types of plate boundaries, including their relative motions and their global locations using geologic, GPS, seismic, and volcanic data.
  • Explain the relationship between plate tectonics, geologic processes, and geomorphic features.

Students will know

  • Landscapes result from the dynamic interplay between processes that form and uplift new crust and the processes that depress and destroy Earth's crust.
  • The Plate Tectonics Theory provides a modern framework for understanding Earth Science.
  • The main classifications of plate boundaries and the resulting geologic phenomena.
  • That there is a distinct relationship between plate tectonics, active processes that take place at plate boundaries, and Earth features such as volcanoes, earthquakes, mountains, ocean trenches, mid-ocean ridges.
  • Earth's materials take different forms as they cycle through the geosphere.


The activities we have selected are congruent with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), and are arranged to build upon one another. Therefore, to follow the storyline we recommend that teachers complete the activities in the order provided. To open an activity in a new tab or window, right click the activity link and select the preferred option.

Plate Tectonics

View Activity

This interactive website produced by the Geologic Society of London introduces students to the "Pioneers of Plate Tectonics," takes them through "What is a Plate" and "Plate Margins," to "Plate Tectonics in the UK."

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 150 minutes

Geoworld Plate Tectonics Lab

View Activity

Students analyze the tectonics of a flat world (called Geoworld) that features continents with ancient mountain ranges, oceans (complete with magnetic "stripes" and a hotspot volcanic chain), an island arc and a trench. Analyses lead to some counter-intuitive conclusions, guiding students toward a deeper understanding of fundamental plate tectonic concepts.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Laboratory investigation, experiment or demonstration

Time Required: 150 minutes

Solomon Islands Regional Tectonics

View Activity

This narrated animation from IRIS focuses on the convergence of the Indo-Australian with the Pacific Plate in the region around the Solomon and Vanuatu island nations. The region is marked by a complicated arrangement of tectonic micro plates crushed between the greater Pacific and Indo-Australian Plates.

Instructional Strategies: Lecture

Resource Type: Visualization (static visualization, animation, simulation)

Time Required: 5 minutes

Using Fossil Corals to Understand Tectonic Activity

View Activity

This activity conveys the knowledge that Earth is dynamic and that plate tectonics is an active, ongoing process. Students use radiocarbon dates for the raised coral reefs from the New Georgia Islands (Solomon Island Group). in combination with measurements of the elevation of these fossil reefs above current sea level to calculate rates of tectonic uplift. Students then develop a conceptual model to explain the pattern of uplift for the last 10,000 years that emerges from the data.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 150 minutes

Hotspots: Mantle Thermal Plumes

View Activity

This short reading from the USGS's online edition of "This Dynamic Earth" discusses the concept of hotspots and the hotspot theory developed by J. Tuzo-Wilson, which helped to develop the Theory of Plate Tectonics. There is a note giving updated information on the hotspot model.

Instructional Strategies: Reading

Resource Type: Scholarly article

Time Required: 30 minutes

IRIS: What is a hotspot?

View Activity

On this IRIS animations page, two narrated animations are presented to explain how hotspots form and how a single island in a hotspot chain evolves over time.

Instructional Strategies: Lecture

Resource Type: Visualization (static visualization, animation, simulation)

Time Required: 5 minutes

Exercise to Introduce Google Earth and Geologic Landforms

View Activity

This website, belonging to Dr. Steven Whitmeyer of James Madison University, contains a collection of download links and overlay files to several Google Earth Exercises and Labs.

Instructional Strategies: Challenge or problem-solving

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 250 minutes

For this unit we have selected one lab:

  • Hot Spot/Plate Motion Exercise - The Advanced Version

This exercise Dr. Steven Whitmeyer of James Madison University shows learners how to use Google Earth to determine latitude, longitude, elevation, and distance between locations, as well as work with geophysical data.

Instructional Strategies: Challenge or problem-solving

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 45 minutes

Yellowstone - Breathing Volcano

View Activity

In this activity, students learn about volcanism in Yellowstone National Park by focusing on its signs of volcanic activity -- history of eruption, recent seismicity, hydrothermal events, and ground deformation. They learn how scientists monitor volcanoes, using Mount St. Helens as an example, and then apply that knowledge to a identifying a hypothetical Yellowstone research site.

Instructional Strategies: Inquiry

Resource Type: Classroom learning activity

Time Required: 170 minutes

UNAVCO GPS Velocity Viewer

View Activity

UNAVCO's Google-Maps based viewer shows the motion of Earth's crust as GPS geodesy station velocities overlaid on maps of the Earth's tectonic plates, USA active faults, earthquake locations, and volcanoes.

Instructional Strategies: Challenge or problem-solving

Resource Type: Visualization (static visualization, animation, simulation)

Time Required: 30 minutes

Field Trips

Studies that examine how geologists think and learn about the Earth point to the value of field experiences in helping students develop practices that constitute geologic reasoning. We encourage teachers to take students into the field as much as possible. To this end, we include ideas for virtual and actual field trips. The former recognizes the limitations of the K-12 classroom setting. Field learning provides a chance to encourage the ability to see features that are important to professional practice. Indeed, many geoscientists report that fieldwork was a key factor influencing their choice of geoscience as a career.

Virtual Field Trip

The PALEOMAP Project sells an app for the iPad/iPhone, Ancient Earth: Breakup of Pangea.

This 2015 article by Stein et al. on the Midcontinent Rift explains the spectacular scenery around Lake Superior resulting from the 1.1 billion year old Midcontinent Rift System and gives park interpreters and educators an opportunity to discuss some of the most important processes that shape our planet and influenced the region's settlement and growth.

Stein, Seth , Carol A. Stein, Eunice Blavascunas, and Jonas Kley, 2015, INTERPRETIVE PRIMER: Using Lake Superior parks to explain the Midcontinent Rift, Park Science, Summer 2015, Volume 32, Number 1, pp. 19-29.

Scaffolding Notes

Teachers must develop their own individual plan for how they will teach the unit.The learning activities and educational resources in this unit are intended to complement other instructional activities led by the teacher. Many of the selected learning experiences provide links to excellent background preparatory materials, additional hands-on resources, teaching tips, and cross-curricular connections.

Teachers will need to create their own multimedia presentations, deliver lectures and assign ancillary work to their students in order to set the stage for effective use of the learning activities contained herein. Therefore, it is imperative to allocate time to review the activities and background material prior to using the learning experiences in this unit and to probe students for their prior knowledge before starting an activity.

In addition, although some activities may incorporate assessments, teachers may need to create their own assessments to ensure that are appropriate for the students they teach.

Asterisks (*) indicate teacher resource and background information recommendations for activity support.


*The unit also encourages students to examine modern data obtained from instruments that monitor tectonic processes.

Plate Tectonics, developed by the Geological Society of London, is a very useful interactive website taking one through the concept of plate tectonics. Have students first work through the "Pioneers of the Plate Tectonics," which discusses the history and development of Continental Drift theory and the Theory of Plate Tectonics. It is recommended that the teacher create guiding questions for this activity in conjunction with the jig-saw approach with the follow-up discussion.

Then have students interact with the world map which has toggles that can show volcanic and earthquake distributions, tectonic plates, direction of motion and types of plate boundaries. The student activity worksheet Using the world plates map takes students on a scavenger-hunt using the world map and familiarizes them with vocabulary and .

The additional tabs allow students to explore "What is a Plate" and "Plate Margins." It is recommended that students have guided questions over the content or keep journal entries on the information found on the site. Under "Teacher Zone" there is a student activity worksheet for calculating sea floor spreading and an image to print out to model a triple junction. Also included is a tab where students can take assessments over the topics. Plate Tectonics sets the background and review of plate tectonics in order to facilitate the next activity.

Within the Teacher Zone is the article, "Volcanoes, molten magma, ...and a nice cup of tea!", by Pete Loader, which provides teachers with an explanation of how does the Earth produce so much molten rock, where does it come from and why volcanoes are confined to certain well-defined zones, as well as ideas for simulating what processes are occurring at plate boundaries.

Geoworld Plate Tectonics Lab gives students the opportunity to analyze and identify the tectonic settings found on Geoworld. They will also determine the offset on transform faults, calculate plate motion using relative and absolute rates, and will draw lithospheric cross-sections, and creating reconstructions depicting past and future plate configurations. The purpose of this in-depth exercise is to guide students into a deeper understanding of fundamental plate tectonic concepts, particularly the difference between relative and absolute plate motion.

For the narrated animation, Solomon Islands, teachers may want to have set of guiding questions for students to discuss.

Using Fossil Corals to Understand Tectonic Activity is included to demonstrate how proxy data can be used to infer plate motion in one of the most tectonically active regions of the world, the southwest Pacific. Students must be familiar with the basic biology and ecology of reef-building corals, atoll development, radioisotope dating, specifically C14 dating and radioactive decay, in order to do the activity. The "teacher materials" provides this background information. To create a conceptual model, students must be able to invoke their understanding of faulting, uplift, subduction, and volcanism at plate boundaries. The teacher should review all material before presenting to students. The activity offers a chance to collaborate with the chemistry and biology teachers, and demonstrates the integrative nature of geoscience.

The USGS reading, Hotspots: Mantle Thermal Plumes, and IRIS: What is a Hotspot? narrated animation set the foundational and background information for the next two activities. Teachers may want to assign these activities as homework, or as an in-class jig-saw activity. Guided questions could be created to go along with the reading and the video.

The World Tectonic Mapping Activity is a good activity for teachers to use as a formative assessment and to reinforce concepts taught previously. It sets the stage for deeper and more meaningful exploration and understanding embodied in the next activity.

* If time did not permit including Hot Spot Activity before this point in the sequence it can be assigned here. The activity takes about 30 minutes to complete and helps students understand plate motion over time. It addresses hot spots that occur under oceanic plates, but students need to understand that there are also continental crust hot spots such as the Yellowstone location.

Taking the Pulse of Yellowstone's "Breathing" Volcano: Problem-Based Learning in America's First National Park requires that students assume the roles of either seismologist, volcanologist, or hydrothermal expert, and upon research of these characteristics of Yellowstone NP, share information with collaborative teams to determine the best place to build a research station. The teacher will want to preview all material before presenting to students. There is a PowerPoint presentation included to share with students that has introductory information but also has the research needed for each group of experts to use in the activity. There are supplemental videos to use for student engagement, as well as a supplemental "Flour Box Volcano" demonstration. All Google Earth overlay files are available for download at the lesson weblink. This assignment can be used as a capstone assessment for this unit on plate tectonics as it relies on the students' overall understanding. The presentation at the end can be a formative or formal assessment by means of a video/slide/poster presentation. Note that the activity fits best after other activities on divergent, convergent and transform plate boundaries.

Next Generation Science Standards

We anticipate that students should be able to achieve the NGSS Performance Expectation(s) listed after completing the activities in this unit. However, we have not carried out educational research to verify this.

MS-ESS2-1. Describe cycling of Earth's system.

MS-ESS2-2. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth's surface at varying time and spatial scales.

MS-ESS2-3. Analyze and interpret data on the distribution of fossils and rocks, continental shapes, and seafloor structures to provide evidence of the past plate motions.

MS-ESS3-2. Analyze and interpret data on natural hazards to forecast future catastrophic events and inform the development of technologies to mitigate their effects.

HS-ESS1-5. Evaluate evidence of the past and current movements of continental and oceanic crust and the theory of plate tectonics to explain the ages of crustal rocks.

HS-ESS2-1. Develop a model to illustrate how Earth's internal and surface processes operate.

HS-ESS2-3. Develop a model based on evidence of Earth's interior to describe cycling of matter by thermal convection.

HS-ESS2-4. Use a model to describe how variations in flow of energy into and out of Earth's systems.

HS-ESS3-1. Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.

These Performance Expectations integrate the Disciplinary Core Ideas, Cross Cutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices of the NGSS as shown in the unit table NGSS Congruence: Plate Tectonics B: Earth Beneath Our Feet (Acrobat (PDF) 189kB Aug12 15)

Additional Resources

The recommended additional resources may be used to extend or augment the storyline.

UNAVCO Educational Resources

UNAVCO is a non-profit, university-governed consortium that facilitated geoscience research and education using geodesy. Its website includes multiple resources for teachers, such as links to real-world data, visualization software, and activities/lab exercises for classroom use. Jules Verne Voyager, Jr. is an interactive map tool developed by UNAVCO.


PhET provides free access to fun, interactive, research-based simulations for all types of physical phenomena. In addition to the simulations, there are links to teacher-created lesson plans, links to lessons in languages other than English, and there is the ability to upload a developed lesson plan. The Plate Tectonics PhET simulation is very useful as introductory material and helps set the stage for the activities in this unit. The suggested assignment allows the student to manipulate the sim and learn more about movement and composition of each plate type.

Earth Scope Resources for Educators

This website developed by EarthScope contains links to excellent Earth Science educational animations, video lectures, and other electronic resources for Educators.

Teachers on the Leading Edge (TOTLE) has lesson plans that support the objectives of this unit.

Live units may have permissions pending and are subject to revision.