Crustal Movement & Hotspots Lab

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SWBAT analyze the formation of the Hawaiian islands over the 'Hawaii Hot Spot' in order to calculate the absolute rate of travel of the Pacific Plate.

Big Idea

To understand the concept of continental drift and island formation as a result of plate movement and hotspots, students calculate the rate of movement of the Hawaiian islands during their geologic history

Lesson Introduction

[Note: For embedded comments, checks for understanding (CFUs), and key additional information on transitions and key parts of the lesson not necessarily included in the below narrative, please go to the comments in the following document: Whole Lesson (with comments)). Additionally, if you would like all of the resources together in a PDF document, that can be accessed as a complete resource here: Whole Lesson [PDF]. Finally, students may need their Earth Science Reference Tables [ESRT] for parts of the lesson (a document used widely in the New York State Earth Science Regents course) as well.]

This lab focuses on the Hawaii Hot Spot, and asks students to measure the distance traveled of the Hawaiian islands over the hot spot, and eventually calculate the rate of movement of the Pacific Plate in centimeters/year. As a note, this lesson, depending on student's reasoning and problem solving skills (some students or classes may need to take longer to perform all the calculations, etc.), may last slightly longer than one hour. 


Materials Needed:

  • Rulers
  • Calculators

Do Now & Objective(s)

10 minutes

Students come in silently and complete the (attached) Do Now. In this case, the Do Now is a review from material earlier in the unit, with a generic focus on some standards in which the entire grade needs a bit of extra help and support. After time expires (anywhere from 2-4 minutes depending on the type of Do Now and number of questions), we collectively go over the responses (usually involving a series of cold calls and/or volunteers), before I call on a student and ask them to read the objective out loud to start the lesson.

As a general note, the Do Now serves a few purposes:

  1. It serves as a general review of the previous day's material; (this particular Do Now goes back in time a few days)
  2. It is a re-activation of student knowledge to get them back into "student mode" and get them thinking about science after transitioning from another content area or alternate class;
  3. as a strategy for reviewing material students have struggled with (for example, using this as a focused review for material that they have struggled with on unit assessments or recent quizzes); and,
  4. It is an efficient and established routine for entering the classroom that is repeated each day with fidelity (I never let students enter the classroom talking. While it may seem potentially severe to have students enter silently each day, this is both a school wide expectation and a key component of my classroom. In many respects, I find that students readily enjoy the focus that starting with a quiet classrooms brings each day).


Hotspots Lab

30 minutes

This lab assignment is fairly complex, so make sure you've allotted enough work time for students to go through everything (I'd recommend at least 30 minutes, as indicated in this section, although your students may need a bit more time). As seen in the Introduction & Map, the procedure is listed in very specific steps that students should follow with good fidelity (in my class at least, deviations from this procedure quickly led to a lot of confusion amongst lab groups). This is a laboratory activity that doesn't work well when students go off the beaten path and do their own exploring - it's highly recommended that they follow the steps in a very direct way. I go so far as to do the first two steps with them whole group, as I find this generally easier and more time efficient than checking in and fixing potential mistakes on a group-to-group basis. Additionally, you'll find the Data Table and post-procedural Analysis in the links. 

Ultimately, students use their rulers and correlate the measurements from one spot on each island to the map key. They're then tasked with calculating that number to a distance traveled in kilometers, before converting that unit to centimeters. They then calculate the rate of movement of the islands over the Hawaii Hot Spot in centimeters/year. This image (Lab Picture) shows some of my students in action with this particular lab.

While students are working on this, I think it's important to (and this is repeating the same information above) make sure students are following the laboratory procedure exactly. If they do things out of order or "go rogue" on this, they're infinitely more likely to be confuse themselves or to get wrong responses. I also, when I'm circulating, try to hone in on those who might need a bit of mathematics support, even after the whole group introduction. I know the students really well, and you probably will to at this stage of the year, so prioritizing groups appropriately and making sure everyone is on using their calculators (no mental math here!) and rounding appropriate are key steps. Additionally, asking them to check visually if something makes sense is important. If a student ends up with an answer of 5000 cm/year, while the other areas are only ~10 cm/year, asking them if that "fits" is an appropriate lead in for having them recognizing and fixing their own mistakes. 

Post Analysis/Practice

15 minutes

Post-lab, the Practice session is designed for them to see this content in a multiple-choice format, which is how they'll be assessed via content knowledge on more traditional exams. From an earlier reflection (see the one in this section for more context here) I utilized weekly data to see that on one assessment, students weren't performing up to par. I deduced that while they were getting time to authentically practice complex skills and process work in groups, they weren't getting enough authentic "at bats" to really transition the learning into their long-term memory. They didn't get the chance to really feel successful with the material, as most of the class time was spent assembling and figuring out the what, how, and why in laboratory groups. The rationale of this section is to provide them the opportunity to practice the skills and knowledge revealed in performing the lab activity - analyzing the movement of crustal plates, testing their knowledge of hotspots and plate tectonics - all that they're required to know on their Regents (state assessment) at the end of the year. 


5 minutes

Unlike most of my other lessons, there is no exit ticket associated with this lesson. In the last few minutes of class, I definitely want to have the room ready for either my next period, or an alternate class that might be using the room (I share a room with another science teacher, which makes clean up all the more important at the end of the period). I make sure to collect all the rulers and calculators (usually, I nominate 1-2 student volunteers to do this) and having them re-arrange their laboratory desks back into their normal classroom arrangement. 

I generally say this in all my lab-based lessons, but I think it's always important to: 1.) save more time than you think you need and 2.) have a hard stop at the end of a lab. Once that time is reached, no lab work should continue. If you're a student in the room, you immediately have to begin the process of cleaning up your work space. Since, as mentioned above, I also share a classroom, I also give them some time to make sure they're all prepared for transitioning out of the room. 

In the last minute or so, I utilize the same procedure I do on non-lab days, which is to ask the students time to think about their self-mastery of the objective (which is posted on the whiteboard), through some guided questions:

  1. Do you feel that you mastered the objective for the day?
  2. Can you reiterate one thing you learned about ____________ (in this case, something like "What evidence can you point to to show that a crustal plate is moving in a certain direction?")

Once I take 2-3 individual responses (sometimes I'll ask for a binary "thumbs up/thumbs down" or something similar), I have students leave once the bell rings.