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Mapping Plate Boundaries

Rurik Johnson (Plymouth Middle School)
This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: November 4, 2004


This exercise is intended to have the students discover plate boundaries based on the uneven geographic occurrence of geologic hazards. After discussing geologic hazards, have the students plot dfferent sets of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on maps. If you have a large class, don't use whole-world maps, use hemispheric ones so one half of the groups can do eastern hemisphere and the other western hemisphere. It takes about ten or fifteen minutes in the middle of lecture. When they hand back the overheads, and you stack them up (one hemisphere at a time) and set them on the projector. The lecture can then move from geologic hazards to plate tectonics. The important thing is for the students to discover the plates rather than to be shown them.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

This lesson enables students to:

  • Deal with maps and numbers in a way that should be manageable for students with serious math and science anxiety
  • Demonstrate their prior knowledge about plate tectonics
  • Make or reinforce the connection between modern geologic hazard distribution and plate tectonics
  • Cooperatively transform real data into a graphic which makes clear one of the biggest ideas in geology

Context for Use

The lecture described below should take about an hour and is intended for an introductory geology class.

Teaching Materials

For this exercise, the instructor will need:

  • Overhead projector
  • World or hemisphere maps on overheads - 1 per student pair
  • Overhead markers - 1 per student pair
    • Give one color to students working with volcano data, another to students working with earthquake data
  • Latitude and longitude data for earthquakes and volcanic eruptions - 1 list of about 10-20 points per student pair

Lecture briefly on geologic hazards: earthquakes and volcanoes, and show overheads of recent news articles. Ask the class if some areas are more susceptible to earthquakes or volcanoes than others. After a think-pair-share (TPS) session of a minute, they'll probably remark that Japan and California seem to have a lot of earthquakes, there are volcanoes in Italy, Hawaii, etc. So, time for another TPS session: why are those areas so geologically hazardous. The responses here will give you an idea of the students' prior knowledge about plate tectonics and boundary types.

Give each student pair a copy of a map printed on a transparency, an overhead marker, and a list of data. For a small class, give students a map of the whle world and each pair should have a different set of data. For a large class, divide the class into east and west and give half Eastern Hemisphere maps and half Western Hemisphere maps. Make two copies of each data table and give a different subset to each pair within a hemisphere, with a warning only to plot data points in their hemisphere. Give the students 10-15 minutes to plot their data, then collect the overheads. Stack up all overheads of a given map (world, Eastern hemisphere, or Western hemisphere) and tell the students about the names of the plates, hotspots, and different types of boundaries.

Teaching Notes and Tips

A lot of volcanic/earthquake data web sites insist on showing the user the data on a map, which somewhat ruins the discovery effect of the lesson, so you probably want to print out data for the students rather than project it onto a screen. Some students may need to be reminded how to deal with latitude and longitude data on a map.



References and Resources

Volcano and Earthquake data:

Once the plate boundaries are discovered by your students, there are many wonderful things for them to learn about plate tectonics.

  • The USGS also has a Weekly Volcanic Activity Report (more info) newsletter to help you with the first part of the lecture. The maps can be used in the second half. There is also a map page for Earthquakes but no corresponding text page.
  • A different Discovering Plate Boundaries (more info) exercise with downloadable maps showing seafloor ages, topography, seismology, volcanology, or plate boundaries.
  • There are many ways to go about reconstructing Pangaea:
  • Compare Earth's volcano distribution to Volcanoes of Other Worlds. What do we know about plate tectonics on Venus, Mars, our moon, or Io?