Lesson Plan

Intro to Plate Tectonics

Using technology to help students understand the earth's crust
Kevin F.
Technology coordinator
San Dieguito Union High School District
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My Grades 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
My Subjects English Language Arts, Math, Science, Social Studies

Students will be able to...

  • Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth's surface at varying time and spatial scales. (NGSS MS-ESS2-2)
  • Analyze and interpret data on the distribution of fossils and rocks, continental shapes, and seafloor structures to provide evidence of the past plate motions. (NGSS MS-ESS2-3)
  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts. (CCSS RST.6-8.1)
  • Integrate quantitative or technical information expressed in words in a text with a version of that information expressed visually (e.g., in a flowchart, diagram, model, graph, or table). (CCSS RST.6-8.7)
  • Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic. (CCSS RST.6-8.9)
Grades 6 – 9
All Notes
Teacher Notes
Student Notes

1 Hook

In the Galleries for Google Earth are one for "Earthquakes in the Last Week" and one for "Volcanos". Students can use these to explore the patterns of where quakes and volcanos occur. (Unfortunately, the Earthquakes gallery displays plate boundaries and names; ideally students should discover boundaries for themselves, but there it is.) Critical questioning leads into the content of the lesson: Why do earthquakes and volcanos occur in patterns?

2 Direct Instruction

This app allows students an overview of the Earth's tectonic plates. Part 1 lets them fit the plate together like a puzzle. The continents are shown in outline on the plates, as a guide. It would be good to have a world map available for students to reference as they work. The timed game provides feedback to kids and provides a little competition among groups. Part 2 has the students locate earthquakes and volcanos (spiraling back to our Google Earth activity) and gives a very nice illustration of how these cluster along plate boundaries. Part 3 starts to move students toward an understanding of the different types of plate boundaries.

3 Guided Practice

Activity: Investigating

This website is not in Graphite yet, but should be: PhET Plate Tectonics Simulation. Students use this simulator to investigate properties of continental and oceanic crust, including composition, temperature, and density. Then they set up a plate boundary and control its movement, observing the results. This (along with some critical guided questioning) moves the students from observation of a pattern ("earthquakes and volcanos occur most often along plate boundaries") to a model for an explanation ("here's how movement of the plates and types of crust produce earthquakes and volcanos"). 

4 Independent Practice

Students can use this app to investigate recent earthquakes near them (or around the world, if they like). Using what they have learned about plate boundaries and motions, they should be able to identify the type of boundary that a quake occurs on, the reason for the depth of the quake, and the likelihood of more quakes in the future.

5 Wrap-Up

Have students use Explain Everything (or another presentation app) to draw, animate, and explain different types of plate boundaries, including where in the world they might be found, and what kinds of quakes and volcanos they result in. Students might work in groups, choosing one type of boundary each, and then present their work to the rest of the class.