Plate Tectonics and the Scientific Process

Revising authors: Suki Smaglik, Laramie County Community College; David Wilkins, Boise State University

Original authors: Kat Cantner, Minneapolis Community and Technical College; Eryn Klosko, SUNY Westchester Community College; Suki Smaglik, Laramie County Community College; Adrienne Sorenson, Central Washington University

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Average inquiry level: Guided inquiry

This is a series of scaffolded modules to guide students in understanding Plate Tectonic Theory, from its history to modern applications, and is designed for the asynchronous class. These modules may be used as individual classroom assignments or as labs. They were written with the intention of students working from 12-16 hours during an asynchronous week. They can also be used in classes with different modalities. This is not designed for one 3-hour lab session, although individual modules could be used as labs.

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These module are intended for students in introductory geology, physical geography, oceanography or planetary geology courses.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

These modules are set for early in the term (first or second lab) and are intended to guide the students to an understanding of the topic and use of the technology. Therefore, no previous knowledge is expected beyond the introductory lecture content.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a series of scaffolded activities that can be used together to present a comprehensive look at Plate Tectonic theory in a guided inquiry-style course. Any one of these modules could be used as a stand alone lab activity. It is not intended that they should all be used in one 2-3 hour lab session. Module 1 could be used earlier in the term to discuss the "Scientific Method" and Module 5 could be used later in the term when studying earthquakes. While each module in sequence will reinforce and extend the understanding of Plate Tectonics, each module is designed to stand a lone should there be desire to do so.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students who complete all of these modules have a solid understanding of Plate Tectonic Theory, from its origins to its modern applications. Individual Learning Objectives are given at the top of each Module.

Below is a short description of each module:
Module 1: Development of the Theory of Plate Tectonics
Module 2: Discovering Plate Boundaries
Tutorial: How to Use Google Earth (Pre-lab for Modules 3-5)
Module 3: Using Google Earth Pro to Build Context
Module 4: Using Google Earth Pro to Calculate and Manipulate Data
Module 5: Using Google Earth Pro to Evaluate Tectonic Hazards

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Higher-order thinking skills goals include synthesis of the scientific process as applied to this fundamental theory in geoscience. As well, students will analyze data, form hypotheses, draw conclusions apply their gained skills to a real-life situation.

Other skills goals for this activity

The three later modules in this series require the use of Google Earth Pro on a computer (tablets, phones and chromebooks will not work). A tutorial is provided for students who do not already possess the skill with this software.

Description and Teaching Materials

Each Module contains an Instructor File and a Student Files, and supplemental materials if required. File names begin with "Module X" form Modules 1-5, "GE_Training" for the Google Earth Tutorial. There is also a zipped folder of reading materials for Module 1 and a .kmz file for use in Modules 3-5.

Teaching Notes and Tips

All notes and tips are included in the file: "Inquiry Labs Instructor Notes - Plate Tectonics Async"


Students competency is assessed through the questions and activities in each module. There is a suggested rubric for each module in the instructors notes.

References and Resources

The Instructors notes for each module provides a reference list for included activities.