MSP:MiddleSchoolPortal/Plate Tectonics: Moving Middle School Science

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Plate Tectonics: Moving Middle School Science - Introduction


When we asked middle school science teachers which topics are important to them, plate tectonics was among the most popular answers. And why not? It is a rich topic that opens students' minds to changes occurring through time. It challenges the students to exercise their critical thinking skills as they consider Earth movements they rarely feel. It also gives students insight into the changes typical in scientists' thinking. Students see how ideas were rejected and accepted as the plate tectonics theory developed.

This publication offers a sampling of exciting activities and animations to support students as they piece together the plate tectonics puzzle. In some activities, students examine different sources of evidence to try to figure out where and how the Earth has changed. They will experience those cherished "aha!" moments when natural phenomena start to make sense. We have also included excellent reading resources to fill the gaps in students' and teachers' understanding of plate tectonics.

National Science Education Standards (1996) describes the concepts involved in plate tectonics as they relate to the structure of the Earth system, the Earth's history, and the history of science. (Here's more about national standards.)

We purposely chose to hold off deeper explorations of earthquakes, mountain building, and volcanoes. No doubt you will see them featured in future issues of this publication. If your junior Earth scientists are yearning for more about those topics, please follow the hyperlinks to browse digital resources that address those terms. In the meantime, enjoy the Earth's moves!

Background Information

Teachers, raise your hand if you (a) don't have a middle school Earth science textbook, (b) don't adore the text you have, or (c) don't have enough books for all of your students. (If you are getting funny looks, please feel free to put your hand down now.) Whether you raised your hand or not, we imagine you'll agree with us that there's value in consulting multiple sources for background information. All of us, young and old, can deepen our understanding by synthesizing information from different sources. Plate tectonics resources may explain the theory in different tones, in differing levels of detail, or even with different illustrations--and digesting these different takes on the subject can help firm up our understanding of this groundbreaking (pun intended) theory.

We have categorized the resources here based on their primary users: teachers or students. For you, the teacher, we present reference material to help round out and deepen your knowledge of plate tectonics. Use the student materials to supplement whatever background information students would normally have at their disposal. An added plus is that two of the student resources include graphics that are a tad animated. While it might seem logical to begin a unit by having students read background information, please note that in this case it may squelch the discovery opportunities available in some of the featured activities.

An additional tool that shows the sequence of learning goals from grades K-12 and provides access to related resources is the NSDL Strand Map Service. These maps illustrate connections between concepts and across grade levels. An image of the middle grades (6-8) only part of the Plate Tectonics map appears below. Three themes are addressed on the map and they are written across the top of the map: The Earth's Interior, Evidence of Plates, and Earthquakes an Volcanoes. Clicking on a concept within a map will show "Top Picks" - resources relevant to the concept, as well as information about related National Science Education Standards. Move the pink box in the lower right hand corner of the page to see the grades 6-8 learning goals. Click the following hyperlink to see the entire K-12 Plate tectonics map Plate Tectonics.

Resources for Teachers

This Dynamic Earth: the Story of Plate Tectonics In this beefy, superbly illustrated booklet, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) does indeed, as their title claims, deftly communicate the story of plate tectonics--with no implication, of course, that either the story of the plates or science's understanding of them is complete. The various sections address a range of information, from the development of the plate tectonics theory, to what is known about plate motions, to scientists' unanswered questions about these movements. (The plate motions section is described separately below.) Speaking of scientists, there is a particularly interesting sidebar--actually a full two pages in length--about Alfred Wegener in the historical perspective section. As you probably know, Wegener proposed the poorly received theory of continental drift, the precursor of the plate tectonics theory. Another section, about plate tectonics and people, addresses the destruction that plate movements can cause and goes where many resources don't when it discusses what humans gain from plate tectonics.

Understanding Plate Motions No plate tectonics unit would be complete without studying the types of plate movements. To supplement or reinforce what you already know about divergent, convergent, and transform plate boundaries, check out this material. General descriptions of each boundary type and subtype (e.g., oceanic-continental convergence) are enhanced by vivid characterizations--in both words and images--of the happenings at specific plate interfaces. The mix of photographs and labeled illustrations do a lot more than pretty up the page--they communicate the effects of plate tectonics. You may want to project some of them during class activities. There are two other pluses. The material touches on a fourth type of plate boundary that is not well-understood and may not even be mentioned in your middle school textbook: plate boundary zones. And, the final section describes how scientists determine past and present rates of plate motion.

Resources for Students

Earth Like a Puzzle The engaging writing style, nontechnical vocabulary, and somewhat interactive graphics make this the most student-welcoming resource on this list. It's appropriate for a wide range of students and offers robust content. In addition to information on the evidence for plate tectonics and the continual nature of plate movements, there are explanations of how plates move relative to each other, causing earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountain ranges to form. A description of the Earth's internal structure is also included. Most of the graphics ask students to either answer a question or turn on data labels. A planning note: There's much greater detail here about seafloor spreading and plate collisions than about transform boundaries.

Plate Boundaries The material is sequenced nicely and is rounded out by short animations that show what occurs at divergent, convergent, and transform (conservative) plate boundaries. Because the labels in the animations have to be turned on one at a time, students can quiz themselves on the location of each labeled feature. (The labels can only be activated when the animations are still.) Please note that the text may be challenging for some middle school students to read, and no, your eyesight isn't going … the animation labels appear in a small font size.


There's nothing stationary about plate tectonics; motion is its motto. That said, lithospheric plates do not move at velocities that would wow a crowd of moviegoers—or middle schoolers. It's true that plate motion can cause rapid events (think of the major California earthquakes), but none of us live long enough to see the creeping plate movement leading up to such events. We also have a viewpoint challenge when it comes to observing lithospheric plates that are many kilometers thick and located beneath our feet. Animations like those described below can be just what you need to hook students and to help build their understanding of plate tectonics. These animations make visible what students normally can't see. They are short depictions (less than a minute in duration) of plate motions and the geologic events that they cause. Key features are labeled in each animation, and most of them include an introductory paragraph.

A few notes:

  • If you are using any of the activities that guide students in discovering that there are lithospheric plates, save these animations until after that fact has been learned.
  • Because the animations are short and some include two views of the same tectonic event, their movie control buttons are helpful tools. Encourage students to use the buttons to play, pause, scroll, and step through the animations to really digest what they are viewing. Students can hone their observation skills with these mini-movies, especially if the animations are the basis for classroom activities like discussions or writing assignments.
  • Remind students to consider the amount of real time that's been compressed into each animation.
  • The animations featured here all come from the same source and were developed to complement a specific textbook; you may use them without the text.

Observe animations of processes that occur along plate boundaries Students see what occurs at each of the three main types of plate boundaries: transform, convergent, and divergent boundaries. Each of these three animations has its own set of control buttons. Because there is no introductory paragraph (only labeled features and arrows in the animations), these animations can support student engagement in an array of tasks that require students to observe, analyze, and communicate about what they have viewed. For example, you might want students to write a short piece in which they compare and contrast the three types of boundaries. Or students could pair up after viewing the animations to discuss a set of questions that you provide.

Observe an animation showing growth of a continent What does it take for a continent to grow? Before students interact with this animation, you might want to ask them if they think that continents can increase in size, and if so, where do they think that growth happens. Then let them view this animation to see a terrane attach to a continent at a subduction zone. Students can research what Earth scientists know about how terranes originate.

Each of the next three animations depicts one of the distinct ways that volcanoes form. The three together provide a nice body of evidence for plate tectonics and reinforce the theory's explanations about where and why geological events occur. If you plan to follow up your students’ study of plate tectonics with a unit on volcanoes, these animations could serve as a bridge between the two topics.

Observe an animation of volcanism at a subduction zone This animation shows the volcanic activity that occurs when an oceanic plate subducts under a continental plate. Students who are already familiar with the three main categories of plate boundaries should recognize this as a specific kind of convergent boundary. Consider asking students why the oceanic plate subducts under the continental plate and not the other way around.

Observe an animation of volcanism along a rift zone If you ask students to imagine a picture of a volcano, how many of them envision an underwater scene? There's plenty of volcanism under the ocean waters. In terms of volume, more volcanic rock is produced in the oceans than on land. This animation reveals what occurs at divergent plate boundaries, most of which are on the seafloor. To help students place the animation in a real setting, ask them to locate mid-ocean ridges on a map. You can connect this animation to a number of important ideas concerning plate tectonics. For example, it can reinforce the fact that plate edges--where so much geologic activity occurs—are not always the edges of continents. In the 1960s in particular, data from areas of seafloor spreading lent significant support to the theory of plate tectonics. This animation can link with explorations of those data, including the age of rocks in the ocean and the magnetic reversals captured in them.

Observe an animation of volcanic islands forming over a hot spot The movie control buttons really come in handy here. They let students take in the visuals and embedded descriptions in two coordinated video clips that provide different views of the formation of the Hawaiian Islands. Unlike the animations listed above, this one does not focus on plate interactions. With that in mind, ask students to consider how the depicted events provide evidence of plate tectonics. Students can also investigate how scientists determine the age of islands. The island chain illustrates the continuous nature of plate movement throughout Earth's history.



Did you ever wonder how to take a slow Earth process that occurs in unseen places and make it come to life in your students' minds? These activities let your students role-play, work with real data, and create hands-on models to firm up their understanding of the mechanics and significance of plate tectonics. Students can use a range of learning modes as they look at patterns on maps, move simulated plates, write their explanations, and report out loud what they have learned.

A wonderful thing about these resources is that you can piece them together in whatever way works best for you and your students. The activities range in duration from 30 minutes to many days, so you can make selections that fit your needs and time constraints. Since many of these activities have discovery components, they will work best if your students do them before they do a lot of background reading. Mt. St. Helends billowing smoke. Photograph of Mount St. Helens by Austin Post, USGS/CVO/Glaciology Project.

Multiple-Day Activities

Musical plates Imagine you are a USGS scientist on vacation and you get a call that you have to get the President a quick analysis of earthquake and volcano data or your research funding will be cut. By playing the role of this harried scientist, your middle school students can feel the excitement associated with helping the world better understand natural phenomena. The lesson's author compiled outstanding resources from a variety of trusted sources, including Access Excellence, the NASA SciFiles, and National Geographic XPeditions. As they publish their work online, the students join a worldwide community of young scientists from Englewood, New Jersey, to Lima, Peru. Students can develop scientific ways of thinking as they form hypotheses, gather data, and look for patterns. When students consider the impacts of earthquakes and volcanoes, as well as the ecological changes resulting from plate movement, they discover how the plate movements have affected people's lives.

Discovering Plate Boundaries Students look at four uniform maps with data (volcanic, seismic, geochronologic, geographic) to predict where lithospheric plate edges are and in what directions they are moving. The students initially develop the maps and identify patterns using their own vocabulary, which helps them sidestep their fear of scientific jargon. Once the students have discovered the patterns in the data, the terms and more facts are introduced. You may prefer to use the teacher's guide as a pdf file because it shows all of the author’s notes. A special feature of this activity is that the maps are uniform; this makes it is easier for students to compare the four sources of data. Currently the author makes hard copies of the maps available at cost because most teachers do not have the color widebed plotter required to print them from the files available online.

Single-Day Activities

Sea-floor Spreading Made Easy This simple but elegant activity asks students to model the creation of the new ocean floor that results from sea-floor spreading. Students see how the rising basaltic magma creates a mirror effect when the new ocean floor is generated and how the creation of new rock at the rift zone is evidence of plate tectonics. The background information for teachers explains the physical features of the lithosphere, plate boundaries, and ocean floor. In addition, it offers a historical perspective that the teacher may share with students to illustrate how a new technology to detect evidence of magnetic polarity provided another way to test the hypotheses leading to the development of the plate tectonics theory.

Snack Tectonics Here's a delicious way for your students to model the different plate interactions. This activity stresses how the density, thickness, and pliability of the plates have a big effect on how they interact at their boundaries. Students can create drawings of the different interactions as an assessment. You can also ask students to explain to the group what they saw happening when the plates moved apart from, collided with, and slid past each another. Ask student to consider how long it takes for these movements to happen in reality. You may want to discuss other plate tectonic evidence as a follow-up to this activity.

NASA's Observatorium Teacher's Guides: Plate Tectonics Is the availability of computers with Internet access somewhat limited in your classroom? If the answer is yes, you can use the components of this lesson that offer students both on- and offline activities. It features an online portion for students to work through a tutorial about lithospheric plate interactions, a nine-question quiz, and a wordsearch. Offline, students discuss vocabulary and fit together paper models of Africa and South America.

What is earth's crust like? When students progress through the pages of this resource, they can see where earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountain building have occurred on Earth. Questions throughout the activity require the students to interpret data on maps to explain the nature of the Earth's crust and the interactions that take place within it.

SMARTR: Virtual Learning Experiences for Students

Visit our student site SMARTR to find related virtual learning experiences for your students! The SMARTR learning experiences were designed both for and by middle school aged students. Students from around the country participated in every stage of SMARTR’s development and each of the learning experiences includes multimedia content including videos, simulations, games and virtual activities. Visit the virtual learning experience on Earthquakes.


The FunWorks Visit the FunWorks STEM career website to learn more about a variety of science-related careers (click on the Science link at the bottom of the home page).

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National Science Education Standards


These excerpts from National Science Education Standards (NSES) relate to the study of plate tectonics in middle school.

Unifying Concepts and Processes

As a result of activities in grades K-12, all students should develop understanding and abilities aligned with the following concepts and processes:

  • Evidence, models, and explanation
  • Constancy, change, and measurement
  • Evolution and equilibrium

Earth and Space Science

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of:

Structure of the Earth System

  • The solid earth is layered with a lithosphere; hot, convecting mantle; and dense, metallic core.
  • Lithospheric plates on the scales of continents and oceans constantly move at rates of centimeters per year in response to movements in the mantle. Major geological events, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and mountain building, result from these plate motions.

Earth's History

  • The earth processes we see today, including erosion, movement of lithospheric plates, and changes in atmospheric composition, are similar to those that occurred in the past. Earth history is also influenced by occasional catastrophes, such as the impact of an asteroid or comet.

History and Nature of Science

As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding of:

History of Science

  • Tracing the history of science can show how difficult it was for scientific innovators to break through the accepted ideas of their time to reach the conclusions that we currently take for granted.

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

Author and Copyright

Judy Ridgway and Carolee Barber, formerly of Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Science and Mathematics Education, Instructional Resources. Judy Ridgway was ENC's Assistant Director of Instructional Resources. She is a veteran educator in the biological sciences. Carolee Barber was a science education resource specialist at ENC. She has science teaching experience at the high school and college levels.

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Copyright November 2004 - The Ohio State University. Last updated September 19, 2010. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0424671 and since September 1, 2009 Grant No. 0840824. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.