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 Plate Tectonics
by Kristen Baumchen
Boise State University

Grade: 9-12
Time Allotment: Two 45-minute class periods
Subject Matter: Geology, Earth Sciences

Using an inquiry-based jigsaw, students will research the separate elements of the theory of Plate Tectonics, then share that information with each other, drawing conclusions from the culminated information.

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  • Identify the connection between volcanoes, earthquakes and tectonic plate theory
  • Define terminology relating to volcanoes, earthquakes and plate tectonics
  • Discuss the relationships of earth crust formation
  • Explain the history of the Plate Tectonics theory
  • Share with and receive information from team members
  • Organize their knowledge in a weft structured essay


01. Understand scientific theories of origin and subsequent changes in the universe and earth systems.

b. Know methods used to estimate geologic time (observing rock sequences... )
c. Know that interactions among the solid earth... have resulted in the ongoing I change of the earth system.

02. Understand geochemical cycles and energy in the earth system.

a. Know that earth systems have internal and external sources of energy, both of which create heat.
b. Know that the two primary sources of internal energy are the decay of radioactive isotopes and the gravitational energy from the earth's origins! formation.i. Discuss how the decay of radioactive elements drives the convection currents within the earth's mantle according to some theories.
c. Know that the outward transfer of earth's internal heat drives convection circulation in the mantle that propels the plates comprising the earth's surface across the face of the globe. i. Describe how the Hawaiian Islands were formed. f. Know that the movement of matter through the solid earth, oceans, and atmosphere is driven by the earth's internal and external sources of energy.


01. Understand that interpersonal relationships are important in scientific endeavors. a. Learn appropriate cooperation and interaction skills.
02. Understand technical communication, a. Understand and follow instruction.

Media Components :
A Global Geography: Spaceship Earth/ Restless Rocks

Web Sites


  • Overhead projector
  • Access to internet
  • Red, yellow, and blue marker for overhead
  • World map copied onto overhead projector sheet for 3 groups
  • Research Inquiries set for each category group
  • Conclusions question set (for each student)
  • Paper and pencil

Prep For Teachers
Anticipate class size for assigning groups. Lesson is designed for five groups of about five students. Fewer or more can be in each group. Prior to teaching this lesson, you may wish to bookmark the websites for faster access by students.

Make copies of world map onto overhead film, one for each group that will work with volcanoes, earthquakes, and plate tectonics (3).

Make 5 copies of the Jigsaw sheet. Add a different color to the color block on each sheet. Partially cut along the dotted lines separating the categories. (Final separation of the categories can happen at the color group table before students join their category group.)


Make copies of CONCLUSIONS/RESTLESS ROCKS sheet (one per student) (2sided copy)

Introductory Activities
       "What do your fingernails and the earth's crust have in common? Perhaps some of the earth's crust is under your fingernails, but that's not it. Give up? Your fingernails are growing at about the same rate that the earth's crust is moving. Constantly, all the time. You might not notice it, but if you don't trim your nails once in a while, they can get pretty unruly. And that same rate of change is what's happening under our feet all the time. Today, we are going to learn a little bit about the dynamics of that changing shell of our planet.        
       First, we will do what is called a jigsaw, where you leave one group to join another to seek the knowledge needed to answer our questions, then you will teach your fellow researchers what you have found out about a specific geologic topic.
       Second, tomorrow (or next class period), we will view a film that will help you apply your new-found knowledge, and finally, you will create an essay explaining what you have learned in an organized and professional manner." Now, the students will group up...

Learning Activities

Have the students form 5 groups of at least 5 students. Give each group a colorcoded, partially cut JIGSAW sheet. This will determine their COLOR group, which is made up of different specialty fields of Geology. Each member of the COLOR group will receive one CATEGORY from the JIGSAW sheet.

Now the students can regroup into their CATEGORY groups. Hand out to each member in the group the appropriate RESEARCH INQUIRIES paper. (Volcano group members will each get a Volcano Research Inquiries paper.) Instructions to the students are on each sheet. They may begin researching the questions given to them on the RESEARCH INQUIRIES paper by going to the websites listed. FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION is provided to each group as they research their topics at the various websites.

Hand out to each student a CONCLUSIONS/RESTLESS ROCKS worksheet. Now the students are specialists in the category they researched. In their original COLOR groups, they will present what they have learned to the rest of the group so all the students can successfully fill out their CONCLUSIONS sheet.

The overheads produced from the VOLCANOES, EARTHQUAKES, and PLATE TECTONICS groups can be brought to the front of the class to be projected on the overhead projector. Before doing so, ask the students what they think will be the outcome of overlaying these three layers together. Does it support what they have learned from their specialists within their groups? Point out the Hawaiian Islands and have a HOT SPOT specialist explain why these islands exist. (The overlays should show a pattern where the three are mainly in the same area, the borders of the tectonic plates. Hawaii is the result of a stationary hot spot with a sliding plate going over it, creating a string of islands over time.)

This should take the first class period. If there is any time remaining, students can start discussing within their groups the terms and questions found on the CONCLUSIONS sheet.

ON DAY 2, students will view the VIDEO RESTLESS ROCKS. They will be able to answer the VIDEO questions during and after the video. They will then have about ten minutes to complete the discussion part of their CONCLUSIONS sheet. During the video, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, roughly 13 minutes into the video, soon after narrator says that the Atlantic Ocean is getting wider, he states that heat is being released by natural radioactivity from inside the plant. PAUSE the video here and ask the class where this radioactivity comes from (from the creation of the planet 4.6 Million years ago.) Ask if they can recall what the narrator said about the Atlantic Ocean. (It is getting larger due to oceanic rifts spreading.) Ask the students to listen for what is happening to the Pacific Ocean. (It is getting smaller.)

Another FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION occurs about 7 minutes later after the explosion in the lake and they introduce the idea of a Hot Spot in Kenya. They soon discuss that Antarctica and Kenya don't fit neatly into the plate theory, as mountains are rising up in cracks in the center of plates. After this point is discussed, PAUSE and ask students to discuss what they know about RESTLESS SPOTS and Hawaii. Have the students listen for additional facts regarding their CONCLUSIONS paper. This video is roughly 25 minutes long. Students can use any extra time to complete papers.

Culminating Activity

As a conclusion to this lesson, students will be expected to write a one-page-minimum essay explaining what they know about the Plate Tectonics theory. Proper essay writing standards will be applied. Students will each turn in RESEARCH INQUIRIES, CONCLUSIONS, and an ESSAY, due one week from this class period. Quality work is expected.

How fast do your fingernails grow? (about 2-3 inches per year!)


Language Arts
Students will apply essay standards to written homework assignment. Other options are: creatively write about experiencing a major natural crisis. How would it influence your attitudes and beliefs?

Determine how earthquakes and volcanoes have influenced societies around the world. How has architecture been influenced by these great forces? Create a map showing the tectonic plates in relation to other geographical boundaries.

Determine the ratio of crust depth to the radius of the planet. Lithosphere, crust, core? What are the percentages of size of the different layers of the planet?

Visit museum or web sites showing damage from crust movement. How have communities adapted to the ever-present threat?
Students can research weather influences from Mt. St. Helen's eruption in 1980.

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