Discover Plate Tectonics

Angela Daneshmand, Santiago Canyon College
Author Profile


This is a student-centered activity for a synchronous online course where students access google slides to complete during a video conferencing session (eg. Zoom) in break out rooms. Students will be introduced to plate tectonics through a series of scaffolded mini activities which includes: active learning jigsaws, group research and presentations, and assessments. Students will familiarize themselves with types of plate boundaries as well as features found at plate boundaries using the Jules Verne Voyager Jr. website, and will use GPS data to visualize direction and speed of plate motion. Additional activities suggested include using Google Earth to visualize plate boundaries, drawing a transect across a plate boundary, and calculating the rate of plate motion using the Hawaiian Islands.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



High School/College Level Introductory Geoscience Students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

This lab is meant to be an introduction to plate tectonics and does not presume any prior knowledge about plate tectonics. They will be working with maps, data, and google slides for these activities. Students should have an openness to scientific inquiry; basic observational and map reading skills; basic algebra skills. If instructors are planning on using the Google Earth portion, students may need to have basic Google Earth knowledge.

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is completed in a flipped classroom setting and can be used in a synchronous online course using zoom breakout rooms. It consists of jigsaws, group work, and report out sessions that complement a short lecture. The purpose of this assignment is to familiarize students with marine provinces and the history of oceanography.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • LO1: Summarize the theory of plate tectonics and use vector data to identify direction and rate of plate motions.
  • LO2: Describe the features and processes found at different plate boundaries and explain why features are found in certain locations.
  • Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • LO3: Develop geoscientific skills: analyzing/interpreting data; reading maps; practicing quantitative skills; thinking in 3D.
  • Other skills goals for this activity

  • LO4: Develop professional skills: collaboration/teamwork; communication; peer review; create community.
  • Description and Teaching Materials


    Mechanics of the Activity:
    For these activities, students will be split up into multiple breakout rooms where they will access google slides made specifically for their group and their group's "expertise." During class, instructors will need to create break out rooms into ~ 4 groups of 4 students each.

    Recommendations for group size based on class size:

    • In a class of 30: 8 groups of 4-5 students
    • In a class of 50: 12 groups of 4-5 students
    • In a class of 100: 24 groups of 4-5 students

    Setting Up the Collaborative Google Slides:
    Before class, instructors will set up 2 Google Drive folders for their students to access and create a new Google slides file for each break out room group.

    • Folder #1 Expert Groups- Copy/Paste slide #2 from TTE Master Group Worksheet Plate Tectonics into each group's google slide set.
    • Folder #2 Mixed Groups- Copy/Paste one slide (#9-20 a different slide for each group) from TTE Master Group Worksheet Plate Tectonics into each group's google slide set.

    Before the lab begins, make sure all the materials are uploaded into the shared workspace and that students have access to shared google slides for their groups. As the lab continues, the instructor will need to copy/paste new slides as needed into the existing slides created for each group. See Instructor Slide Guides on the TTE Master Group Worksheet Plate Tectonics slide deck. It is recommended that the instructor always shares their screen and explains exactly what the students are to be doing in each break out room session before sending students into breakout rooms.

    • Break Out #1: Introductory Activity
      30 minutes - Small group - full group - Level 2 open inquiry
      • Each group will practice how to read and make map observations using the USGS Dynamic Planet map(Legend, North arrow, scale, etc.).15 minutes, small group
      • Each group downloads the USGS Dynamic Planet map and answers the guided questions on their group's google slide and nominate a reporter for the presentation. 15 minutes, full group (Assessment: Group inquiry)
    • Break Out #2: Discovering Plate Boundaries- Expert Groups (Jigsaw Activity)
      20 minutes - Small group - Level 1 guided inquiry
      (Created by Angela Daneshmand modified from Discovering Plate Boundaries, Rice University)
      • Each expert group will navigate Jules Verne Voyager Junior website and manipulate the map to find their specific data sets. Groups will learn and work together to understand their expert roles once they encounter the maps/worksheets in their breakout rooms. They will make observations and answer the guided questions in the shared google slide.
      • Expert groups will each have a google slide with specific instructions for their specialty:
        • Group 1: Seismology
        • Group 2: Volcanology
        • Group 3: Geochronology
        • Group 4: Geography/Topography
    • Break Out #3 Discover Plate Boundaries- Mixed Groups (Jigsaw)
      25 minutes - Small group - full group - Level 1 guided inquiry
      (Created by Angela Daneshmand modified from Discovering Plate Boundaries, Rice University)
      • Each group finds their "All 4 Maps" in the shared Google slides where each box represents a different data type. Each expert in the group explains the data represented for their particular region and expertise. Groups use their combined expertise to answer the guided questions in the google slides.
      • Four different groups will present their findings to the class:
        • Divergent Plate Boundary
        • Transform Plate Boundary
        • Convergent Boundary with Subduction
        • Convergent Boundary without Subduction
      • Assessment: Group Understanding
    • Break Out #4 Mystery Plate Boundary Activity
      25 minutes - Small group - full group - Level 1 guided inquiry
      • Each group will be assigned a location map of a mystery plate boundary and answer guided questions on the shared google slideset
      • Based on the topography each group will:
        • Determine the geographic location and type of plate boundary shown.
        • Discuss features of a cross section perpendicular to the plate boundary and explain how they came to their conclusions.
        • Draw a labeled cross section across the mystery plate boundary they were assigned.
      • Assessment: Application of knowledge
    • Break Out #5: GPS Data and Plate Motion
      25 minutes - Small group - full group - Level 1 guided inquiry
      (Modified by Beth McLarty Halfkenny from EdGEO Bringing the Earth To Life)
      • Each group will return to their breakout rooms to work on the Dynamic Planet Map. Students will build very rough vectors of direction and distance traveled at some of the GPS stations on the chart. In groups, they will discuss what is happening at various plate boundaries as they see the directional motion (15 minutes, small group).
      • Discussion/Presentation: Using the shared screen, students from different groups will present/discuss their (10 minutes, full group)
      • Assessment: Ability to understand data

    Supplemental Activities:
    30-60 minutes - Small group - full group - individual - Variable levels of inquiry These optional activities may be used at the end of this lab as time permits. They may also be useful as a way to connect this lesson to the next lab or a way to assess retention of material.

    • Grand Tour of the Ocean Basins (Google Earth)
      Created by Angela Daneshmand to complement Declan G. De Paor's Google Earth files and user guide
      Using the resources found on GEODE, groups or individual students will investigate different regions of the Earth's oceans.
      Instructors may encourage students to take this brief tutorial on using Google Earth.
    • Plate Tectonics Transect Creation
      Modified from McConnell et al., 2021
      Students will analyze a figure depicting the plate tectonics of the Pacific Northwest and draw a cross section of a transect across two plate boundaries.
    • Calculations of Plate Movement Speed (Quantitative Analysis)
      Modified from Heather Gingerich, Department of Earth Sciences, The University of Western Ontario
    • Hawaiian Islands Plate Motion
      Students will calculate the rate of plate motion using the ages and distances of islands and calculate the time for the oldest seamount in the Emperor Chain to be subducted.

    Assessment: Exit Ticket
    15 minutes - To be completed prior to leaving the lab - Individual Assessment
    (Created by Angela Daneshmand)


    Dale S. Sawyer, Alison T. Henning, Stephanie Shipp &; Robyn W. Dunbar (2005) A Data Rich Exercise for Discovering Plate Boundary Processes, Journal of Geoscience Education, 53:1, 65-74, DOI: 10.5408/1089-9995-53.1.65

    Gingerich, H. (n.d.). The Incredible Moving Volcano! Mantle Hot Spots. Ontario Geoscience Resource Network.

    McConnell, D et al., (2021) ConcepTest: Cross-Section of Plate Boundaries, Teach the Earth. Retrieved Aug 11, 2021, from

    Simkin, T., Tilling, R. I., Vogt, P. R., Kirby, S. H., Kimberly, P., &; Stewart, D. B. (2006). This dynamic planet: World map of volcanoes, earthquakes, impact craters and plate tectonics. USGS Numbered Series.

    Teaching Notes and Tips

    Some activities may not be a good fit for a class that includes vision-impaired students. The USGS may be able to provide alternate formats upon request (see instructor guide for link).

    Simulating the jigsaw in an online environment can be overwhelming if the instructor is not prepared. Make sure to read the instructor's guide first for details on creating and facilitating breakout rooms.

    If using the Google Earth supplemental activity, students may need a quick overview of how to use the application if they are unfamiliar. Make sure to include time for this or have them complete the brief tutorial on their own as part of a homework assignment.


    Summative assessment: The exit ticket contains 8 open-ended questions that assess whether the students have met the goals of these activities. The exit ticket can be administered as a quiz on the LMS.
    Formative assessment: Group presentations of findings and group google slide files can be used as formative assessment.

    References and Resources

    GPS Background information:
    GPS Velocity Viewer:
    Measuring Plate Tectonics with GPS- Unavco
    GPS Vector PPT using Jules Verne Voyager Jr:
    Cross Section across Juan de Fuca Plate:
    Hawaii Volcanoes Assignment: