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Plate Boundaries and Volcanoes

This material was originally created for On the Cutting Edge: Professional Development for Geoscience Faculty
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.
Carol Ormand, Wittenberg University
Course: Geology of the National Parks
28 students
Students remember what they have seen and done much better than they remember what you have told them. Working with real, complex data sets is a particularly effective teaching method.

The Activity

I have students work in groups of three or four, studying maps of volcanic activity around the world, on a base map of tectonic plate boundaries. I have each group then classify three to five plate boundary types, on the basis of volcanic activity. (In other words, I have them do the "volcanologist" portion of Dale Sawyer's plate tectonics jigsaw. (more info) ) When they are done, a few volunteers present their groups' classifications to the class.

I then lecture, very briefly, saying simply that the patterns they noticed are not coincidental, and that we will discover what causes them as the week goes on, and that a large part of science (and geology in particular) involves trying to explain the patterns we observe in the natural world.

Additional Information

I particularly like this exercise because the students can all find patterns in the data, and have fun doing it, and they are doing science -- even the ones who tell me in their (written) introductions that they are science-phobic. And it leads right in to the plate tectonics jigsaw that we do for the rest of the week.