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Plate Tectonics Project Ideas

Instructor: Josh Corbat

Josh has taught Earth Science and Physical Science at the High School level and holds a Master of Education degree from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Need some ideas for projects students can do to help them understand plate tectonics? This lesson offers some ideas that can help you bring this topic alive in the classroom.

Plate Tectonics: How Do We Study What We Can't Observe?

One of the major challenges in teaching about plate tectonics is that the process is happening on such a major scale that we cannot simply have students observe it. This makes projects, large and small, particularly important for students as they work to understand the process that moves our Earth. In this lesson you will find some project ideas that can be modified to fit your students' needs.

Erosion Walk

Although the processes of erosion and deposition are not strictly connected to plate tectonics, one concept students have a particularly difficult time with is the mutability of the Earth's crust. To help students see that Earth's crust is constantly changing, take them on a walk around the school and point out areas of erosion and deposition. You will want to plan the walk ahead of time to make sure it will be fruitful, but you will almost certainly be able to find areas where Earth's surface is always on the move.

Candy Bar Tectonics

A delicious way to help students visualize the moving crust and mantle is to provide them with a fun size candy bar that has layers similar to the Earth. Many types of candy bar work well for this, but Milky Way bars tend to be best. Plus, there's the added bonus of them being named after our galaxy! If you score the middle of the bar with a thumb nail or plastic knife, then push and pull on each side, the chocolate will crumble and stretch like the Earth's crust. Clean up is particularly fun with this project!

Models

This project will work best after some introductory lessons on plate tectonics, as students will be able to apply what they have learned to build complex (or not-so-complex) models of the moving Earth. Materials used for models can range from cardboard and construction paper to water, sand, and clay. The main idea here is to allow students to be a bit creative with how they represent Earth's crust and mantle while remaining true to the scientific principles at play.

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