Teaching Notes

Example Output


Grade Level

This activity is suited for high-school students and introductory science courses at colleges and universities.

Some of the material in the Learning With Data CD-ROM, from which this lesson has been derived, may also be suitable at middle school levels, where students will be able to use the Solid Earth Data Browser to investigate earthquake locations and view the animated plate tectonics videos.

Learning Goals

After completing this chapter, students will be able to:

  1. Observe, interpret, and analyze solid Earth image data
  2. Make a clear distinction between observations and interpretation of data
  3. Present data as evidence for the theory of plate tectonics
  4. Write a paper that contains important elements of a science paper


In studies of learning, writing has been shown to help the learner organize her/his thoughts and increase the comprehension of science processes. According to standards of the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, the "ability to generate questions, identify issues, pose problems, and seek out answers is at the core of productive human living." Additionally, "It is essential that students acquire a wide range of abilities and tools for raising questions, investigating concerns, and solving problems." The Standards document also states that "Technology opens up new worlds to students, making available a tremendous assortment of information, ideas, and images. It also provides new motivation for writing and allows students to assume greater responsibility for their own learning" (National Council of Teachers of English, 1996).

This activity uses image data representing topography, earthquakes, and volcanoes as source material for the construction of a scientific argument. By examining images from the Learning With Data solid Earth data browser, students will learn to recognize relationships between the geologic features mentioned above and the emergence of patterns in their distribution. They will write data interpretations in light of the Theory of Plate Tectonics and discuss how their observations support the Theory.

Depending on the scope of the assignment, students are guided to write a paper that contains the typical elements of a science paper (abstract, introduction, methods, observations, interpretations, discussion, and references). Alternatively, an educator may ask students to concentrate on the two core elements of observations and interpretations.

The data images used throughout this example activity are specific to a typical subduction zone. On the Learning With Data CD-ROM, earthquake, elevation, seafloor age, volcano, and other data are available for the entire Earth, so the scope of student investigations can be widened considerably.

Student exercises can be derived directly from the experiences of practicing scientists. However, good inquiry exercises need to frame problems at appropriate levels for students and have specific learning goals. Good inquiry assignments strive to strike a balance between a task that describe every baby-step for the student and those that are completely unstructured. A very directive problem might be appropriate early on to get the student familiar with the general tools, but more open-ended explorations that require her/him to understand the theory should follow. No matter which method you use, you should carefully consider what knowledge students will need to know to be successful, and make sure it is available to them when they need it. Preparing the students appropriately is then the art and science of the instructor.

More information can be found at [learningwithdata.org/activities/make_an_inquiry_activity.html]

Background Information

Prerequisite knowledge

  • Students should be familiar with the Theory of Plate Tectonics. To this end, they may consult the extensive content resources in the Learning With Data Workshop, the USGS's 'DLESE Evidence for Plate Tectonics Teaching Box'.
  • Students should have a general knowledge of the world's geography and know how different levels of elevation are portrayed in colored maps.

Instructional Strategies

  • To complete this activity, students need access to computers. It's probably best to let them work on their own but team work may be beneficial as well. While exchanging ideas with peers can provide additional insight for the individual student and prevent misconceptions from taking hold, writing papers in groups is not usually considered a fruitful activity in the educational literature.
  • When the Learning With Data materials are used and different groups are covering different areas of the planet, it is helpful for students to work in groups to familiarize themselves with the data browser and make an outline of their writing assignment. A brief class presentation by each group will facilitate discussion and allow the instructor to give input and feedback.
  • The instructor should plan to meet with students or student groups to answer questions, check on their progress, and provide some nudging if necessary.

Learning Contexts

This chapter is best implemented once students have some background on Plate Tectonics. However, its purpose goes beyond understanding geology. Through their writing, students are encouraged to gather their thoughts and use their understanding for the formulation of a coherent scientific argument. In this respect, the activity can apply to many science disciplines.

Science Standards

The following National Science Education Standards are supported by this chapter:

Grades 5-8 http://pals.sri.com/standards/nses5-8text.html
Science as Inquiry (8ASI):

  • 8ASI1.1 Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations.
  • 8ASI1.2 Design and conduct a scientific investigation.
  • 8ASI1.3 Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data.
  • 8ASI1.4 Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence.
  • 8ASI1.7 Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.

Grades 9-12 http://pals.sri.com/standards/nses9-12text.html 
Science as Inquiry (12ASI):

  • 12ASI1.1 Identify questions and concepts that guide scientific investigations.
  • 12ASI1.2 Design and conduct scientific investigations.
  • 12ASI1.4 Formulate and revise scientific explanations and models using logic and evidence.
  • 12ASI1.6 Communicate and defend a scientific argument.
  • 12GHNS2.2 Scientific explanations must meet certain criteria.

Geography Standards

The following U.S. National Geography Standards are supported by this chapter:

How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective

Other Standards

Standards for the English language arts

7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.

8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Time Required

A group activity using the sample case study discussed below requires about one hour. The paper writing can be done as a homework assignment and could take several hours.

Other Resources