Tracking Tectonic Plates Using Two Independent Methods

Laurel Goodell, Department of Geosciences, Princeton University.

This page is a supplement to the original activity description found here

Short description of the activity:

Students come to this activity familiar with the basic assumptions of plate tectonics. Using a Google Earth platform showing commonly accepted lithospheric plate boundaries as well as locations of GPS stations, students form hypotheses about motions expected across particular plate boundaries. They then test their hypotheses by analyzing plate motion using two independent methods: 1) long-term average rates based on sea-floor age and "hot-spot" tracks and 2) near real-time rates based on high-precision GPS data.

How does this activity lend itself to teaching the methods of geoscience?

Students reinforce their understanding of plate tectonics by working with data on which the theory is based - and they have great flexibility in determining which data to use in their analyses. But while students do confirm the basic tenets of the theory, just as importantly they discover its complexities and limitations: plate boundaries are not infinitely narrow as those lines depicted in textbook figures, plate motions change over time, internal plate deformation does occur and "hot spots" don't work like hypodermic needles providing a constant, pin-point pipeline of magma! That is, students learn a fundamental theory while also grappling with areas of current research regarding that theory.

Specific Adaptations: How do these help the activity address the methods of geoscience?

Assessment: How are the methods of geoscience assessed?