Shifting Plates, Shifting Minds: Plate Tectonics Models Designed for Classrooms

Understanding Earth’s tectonic plate system dynamics is complicated though it is the central paradigm to explain transformations of Earth’s surface. The landforms and geodynamic events resulting from plates interacting are too massive to observe at scales of human experience. It is difficult for students to connect plate movements to geologic features like the Andes Mountains and geodynamic events like earthquakes. As such, the conventional teaching of plate tectonics rarely involves student-led systematic explorations. This article introduces a new online curriculum module called “What will Earth look like in 500 million years?” Using two web-based tools, middle and high school students develop understandings of (1) how collective movements associated with a system of plates create the current distribution of landforms found on Earth’s surface, and (2) how earthquakes and volcanoes provide important clues for interactions at plate boundaries. With Seismic Explorer, students identify patterns from earthquakes locations USGS recorded and volcanic eruptions recorded by the Smithsonian Institution Global Volcanism Program. With Tectonic Explorer, students vary conditions such as plate number, location, density, and force dynamics, to simulate the formation of various landforms over hundreds of millions of years on an Earth-like planet.

Pallant, A., McDonald, S., & Lee, H.-S. (2020). Shifting plates, shifting minds: Plate tectonics models designed for classrooms. The Earth Scientist, 36(1), 40-46.