Geosphere: Plate Tectonics

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SWBAT use a map to explain plate tectonics and how the Earth's systems interact at plate boundaries.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students explore the plate tectonics theory by watching a video and taking notes. Then, students examine how the Earth's systems (spheres) interact when plates collide.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEM, very clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will study each of Earth's major systems: biosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. In addition, students will investigate how these systems interact in multiple ways to affect Earth's materials and processes by conducting research, constructing graphs, creating models, carrying out scientific investigations, and analyzing real-world applications. 

Summary of Lesson

Today, I open the lesson by asking students to participate in a picture observation of fossils found on Pangaea. Students then explore the plate tectonic theory and types of plate boundaries by watching a video and constructing a poster. At the end of the lesson, students reflect and apply their new understanding of the geosphere by examining how the Earth's systems interact when two plates collide.

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support the following NGSS Standard(s):'

5-ESS2-1. Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.  

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in Science & Engineering Practice:

Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

Students reach develop evidence-based arguments about Pangaea, plate tectonics, plate boundaries, volcanoes, and earthquakes. 

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept

Crosscutting Concept 2: Cause and Effect 

Students examine the cause and effect relationships between plate tectonics, volcanoes, and earthquakes.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas

ESS2.A:  Earth Materials and Systems

Earth’s major systems are the geosphere (solid and molten rock, soil, and sediments), the hydrosphere (water and ice), the atmosphere (air), and the biosphere (living things, including humans). These systems interact in multiple ways to affect Earth’s surface materials and processes. The ocean supports a variety of ecosystems and organisms, shapes landforms, and influences climate. Winds and clouds in the atmosphere interact with the landforms to determine patterns of weather. (5-ESS2-1)

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of two or three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half or thirds. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


10 minutes

Teacher Note

When planning this unit, I found that NGSS standard, 5-ESS2-1 was quite complex: Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact. In past years, I would have taught an entire unit on just one of the spheres. 

Therefore, constructing lessons that would provide students with an in-depth understanding of all four systems within a single unit was the main objective. For this reason, I chose to use teacher anchor charts throughout the unit to immediately provide students with background knowledge on each of the spheres. This way, students could then build upon this knowledge base as they explored each sphere further (and deeper) on their own. The posters remained up throughout the unit so that students could continually refer to and apply their knowledge of the spheres when studying real-world applications later on. 

For today's lesson, we will create a classroom anchor chart to further explore the geosphere. Tomorrow, students will expand their understanding of geosphere by completing their own research on the rock cycle. 

Picture Observation

I begin today's lesson by asking students to analyze the following picture and make observations: What do you notice? Student responses include, "North America isn't in the picture," "There aren't very many fossils in Africa," "Fossil evidence of the Triassic land reptile Lystrosaurus is found across three continents," and "The continents match up like a puzzle."

Image Source:

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I introduce today's learning goal: I can use a map to explain plate tectonics and how the Earth's systems interact at plate boundaries. Referring to the Earth Systems Poster that we created at the beginning of the unit, I explain: So far, you have learned that there are four major systems on Earth. During the last few lessons, you explored the biosphere by researching the biomes on Earth. Today, we will take a closer at the geosphere. To truly understand the geosphere, it is important to understand a scientific theory called, Plate Tectonics. 


I want to inspire interest in today's lesson and capitalize on student curiosity, so I show the first two minutes of the following video clip. I chose this clip because my students LOVE Billy Nye the Science guy. Also, I think he does a great job introducing and modeling key vocabulary: plate tectonics, crust, mantle, and Pangaea. 


60 minutes

Plate Tectonics Anchor Chart

I prepared for today's lesson by projecting and tracing the following document Plate Tectonics Template on a large bulletin board paper: Plate Tectonics World Map Template on Poster. I also organized a few Teacher Notes on Plate Tectonics to help guide class discussions today. Here's what the poster will look like at the end of the lesson: Completed Poster.

Getting Ready

I pass out a copy of the Plate Tectonics Template to each student and model how to paste this page in the center of a 11 x 17 piece of construction paper to add more room for note-taking. Here are a few examples of student posters at the end of this lesson: 



For today's lesson, I collected, printed, and attached Plate Tectonics Pictures to the anchor chart so that students can make connections between the pictures and newly learned information. 

Plate Tectonics & Pangaea

We construct the poster by reviewing the Bill Nye video from the beginning of today's lesson. I write "Tectonic Plates" at the top corner of the poster and ask: What do scientists believe about the Earth's crust? (Scientists believe the Earth's crust is made of plates and that these plates are floating on the Earth's mantle, or molten rock.) What is Pangaea? (Pangaea means "whole Earth" and it refers to a super continent when all the plates were pushed together.) 

During this discussion time, I jot down the following notes on the poster, Tectonic Plates, while students complete notes on their own "posters."

Labeling the Continents & Plates

This is the perfect time to label the seven continents and to label the 15 major plates on Earth (using the Plate Tectonics Template). Students notice right away, "There are two lines labeled with the number 1," and "There are two lines labeled with the number four." Grabbing a globe, I explain: That's because our world is round and this map is flat. The Pacific Ocean is located on the far left side of the map, as well as the far right side of the map.

Starting with the line labeled number one, we label each of the major plates on Earth, one by one. After the first few plates, students began guessing the names ahead of time! I loved this as it was evidence that they were using what they know (such as the name of a continent) to make educated guesses about new knowledge. 

Plate Names

  1. Pacific Plate
  2. Cocos Plate
  3. Juan de Fuca Plate
  4. North American Plate
  5. Caribbean Plate
  6. Nazca Plate
  7. South American Plate
  8. Scotia Plate
  9. Antarctica Plate
  10. African Plate
  11. Eurasian Plate
  12. Arabian Plate
  13. Indian Plate
  14. Indo-Australian Plate
  15. Philippine Plate


Gathering Information

To gather more information on plate tectonics and to approach today's classroom anchor chart a bit differently, I show students the following video. Throughout the video, I pause and ask students to help identify information that fits under specific headings on our poster. I take notes on the classroom poster while student take notes on their own "posters."

Divergent Boundaries (Blue Marker)

First, we pause the video at 10:30, discuss, and note key information on divergent boundaries. Students recall that divergent boundaries are moving apart from each other. To help support my visual learners, I draw a quick sketch of two plates moving apart from each other: Divergent Boundary Notes

We then discuss the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the Great Rift Valley. Using a blue marker, I draw and label the locations of these divergent boundaries on the map. Then, we take notes on both of these geographical features: Mid-Atlantic Ridge and Great Rift Valley. Students are blown away by the idea that plates on the Earth's surface are actually moving away from each other and creating new crust. This is a perfect opportunity to show students the following picture of the Great Rift Valley: 

One of my kinesthetic learners really connected with the student demonstration of divergent boundaries in video (at 5:20) ... so much so that he decided to make his own model of new crust forming by cutting and numbering this paper, Kinesthetic Learner. He then sandwiched the papers together, slipped them between two desks, and slowly pulled each paper out of the crack, revealing the 1s, 2s, 3s, and then the 4s. 

Convergent Boundaries (Red Marker)

Continuing on with the video until 10:42, students learn about convergent boundaries next. Continuing in the same manner, we took notes (Convergent Boundary Notes) and discuss two types of convergent boundaries: the Himalaya Mountains and subduction zones along the Ring of Fire that create major volcanoes, such as Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Paricutin. Using a red marker, we label the convergent boundaries and add these geographic features to the world map. 

I also attach the following pictures of the Ring of Fire, Himalaya Mountains, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Paricutin: 


Transform Boundaries (Pink Marker)

Finally, we watch the video until 10:54, discuss, and take notes on transform boundaries: Transform Boundary Notes. This is a perfect opportunity to discuss and label the San Andreas Fault line in California: San Andreas Fault. In particular, it is important to call attention to the main difference between transform boundaries and convergent/divergent boundaries. Since transform boundaries slide past one another, they trigger large earthquakes instead of producing mountains or valleys. 

Students were very interested in seeing a picture of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake: 

At this point, I play the rest of the video. I love how the video reviews the above boundaries and provides further examples. This provides students with layers of instruction instead of just one opportunity to learn about the boundaries. 

Reflect & Apply

20 minutes

Sharing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by observing, questioning, and exploring, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to share their findings. For this reason, I invite students to observe how the spheres interact as two plates collide at a subduction zone using the picture below: 

Teacher Note: This activity supports NGSS standard, 5-ESS2-1: Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact

Google Documents

Each of my students has a google email account, so sharing documents that can be edited by students is quick and easy! At this time, I share the document, Plate Tectonics & Spheres Response (in Google Documents). At this time, students grab their laptop computers from the cart and copy the document to make it their own editable version.

Modeling Expectations

To get students started, I ask: Can anyone explain how the geosphere might be interacting with others spheres as tectonic plates collide at a subduction zone? One student says, "An earthquake could cause a landslide." Another student points out that the subduction zone causes magma to erupt through a volcano. Others begin discussing how an earthquake and volcano can impact the other spheres (earthquakes can move sediment which could pollute the rivers in the hydrosphere. Now, students are ready to continue working with their partners! 

In groups of two, students complete this response by discussing each of the spheres and typing their own observation pages.

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with every group. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

  1. What have you noticed? 
  2. Why do you suppose ____? 
  3. What have you found so far? 
  4. Has your thinking changed? 
  5. What evidence do you have? 
  6. How did you decide _____?
  7. What conclusion can you draw about ____?
  8. How is the ______ (sphere) connected to the _____ (sphere)?



During this conference, Student Conference, I help guide the students to understanding the earthquake symbol in the picture as well as what happens at a subduction zone. By the end of our conversation, I feel that the students are ready to continue discussing the interacting spheres.

Student Work

Here are a few examples of student work during this time: