Plate Tectonics Classroom Activities

Instructor: Rachel Tustin

Dr. Rachel Tustin has a PhD in Education focusing on Educational Technology, a Masters in English, and a BS in Marine Science. She has taught in K-12 for more than 15 years, and higher education for ten years.

While for science teachers plate tectonics may have gotten you excited in school, we have to remember that is not always the case for the students in our classroom. These activities should help to avoid getting glassy looks and make this topic more fun for students.

Pangaea Mystery

If you think of the lifespan of a child, it is very clear why they might have trouble grasping the notion that the continents are moving. However, letting students discover in a hands-on activity how the continents were once all joined is a much more effective strategy in helping them understand the reasoning behind the argument for the supercontinent Pangaea and the theory of continental drift.

Materials

  • large blue piece of butcher paper, one for each group
  • paper cutouts of all the continents, one set for each group
  • research materials (websites, books, or textbooks) about Pangaea
  • crayons or markers

Directions

  1. Divide the class into small groups and give each group a set of continent cutouts and a blue sheet.
  2. Explain to students that the continents have not always been where they are now. Alfred Wegener believed that the continents floated on the 'sea' that is the earth's mantle, and over time they moved into a supercontinent, Pangaea, and then moved apart again.
  3. Have the students use with the continent cutouts like puzzle pieces and try to create Pangaea.
  4. Then have the students place their cutouts to represent their location today.
  5. Discuss how currently the Pacific Ocean is shrinking, and the Atlantic Ocean is growing every day, and have students spend some time moving the continents trying to determine where they might be in the future.
  6. Now, using the provided resource materials, have students research evidence of continental drift and Pangaea.
  7. As a class, list out on the board the evidence used to prove that the supercontinent of Pangaea once existed on Earth.
  8. Using their continent pieces and blue paper, along with their research, have each group create a brief information presentation explaining how the supercontinent of Pangaea formed, and hypothesize where the continents will move to in the future.

Pangaea
pangea

Edible Tectonics

The reality is that plate tectonics can be a dull subject for students who may not have a natural fascination for rocks. Throw into the mix the complexity of different types of plate boundaries and you may have a mix for students to fall asleep in your class. So if you want to engage students, what better strategy than to have them build a model they can eat?

Materials

  • Cool Whip (it holds up better than whipped cream)
  • Oreo cookies
  • graham crackers
  • chocolate chips
  • Hershey's kisses
  • red frosting
  • paper plates
  • plastic spoons
  • toothpicks
  • masking tape
  • Three different fact sheets - one on convergent boundaries, another on divergent boundaries and the third on transform boundaries, one fact sheet per student
    • These should also include good images for the students to use

Directions

  • You may assign, or have students pull from a hat, a specific type of plate boundary to model (convergent, divergent, or transform).
  • Explain to students that they are going to be creating a model of their plate boundary. Have each student get a fact sheet for their boundary and review it.
  • Once they are familiar with their type of boundary, review the materials they will have available for building:
    • The red frosting is to be used for magma
    • The graham crackers for oceanic plates
    • The Oreos for continental plates
    • The Hershey's kisses and chocolate chips can be used for volcanoes
  • Have students preplan their model using scratch paper, then have them show/explain their plan to you for approval before getting their materials.
  • Have all students start out by spreading a thin layer of Cool Whip across the plate to serve as a foundation for their model.
  • Once the models are built, have students use toothpicks and masking tape to label each structure.
  • Have students (or yourself) take a digital image of their model.
  • Once you have let them enjoy eating their models, students can use the digital images to present and explain their models to the class.

How Fast are the Plates Moving?

When it comes to speed, everything is relative. If you are driving in a car on the highway, you might be going 70 mph. That is fast compared to someone walking on the side of the road, but you might be slow compared to a truck breaking the speed limit doing 80 mph. The same is true for how the plates move. If you are standing on a plate, it doesn't seem to move at all. In fact, if the sun didn't move in the sky, your students might argue that we didn't move at all.

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