Plate Tectonics

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SWBAT describe the impact that plate tectonics have on the topography of Earth.

Big Idea

After learning about plate tectonics, students will model how plates move when a prompt is given.

Rationale and Preparation

The Why Behind Teaching This 

Unit 5 covers standards relating to Earth's Systems.  It covers Standard 5-ESS2-1: Develop a model using an example to describe ways the geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and/or atmosphere interact.  Students will be learning the difference between each of the systems, and ways that each of the systems interact to help make Earth what it is today.  The other standard covered is Standard 5-ESS2-2: Describe and graph the amounts and percentages of water and fresh water in various reservoirs to provide evidence about the distribution of water on Earth. 

Modeling will be an important component of this unit.  Students will be modeling layers of Earth, the water cycle, land forms, and more.  The unit begins with an overview of all the systems, then each system is taught in isolation.  As each new system is covered, how it depends on or interacts with the previous systems will be addressed.  In addition to the end of unit assessment, there will also be a culminating activity where groups build a model to demonstrate how 2 of the systems interact.  Connections to several previously covered standards will also be made throughout this unit.

This specific lesson covers standard 5-ESS2-1 by making the connection between the layers of the Earth (from a previous lesson), to the topography of the Earth.  The movement of plates that make up the crust forms mountains and volcanoes which is directly related to the geosphere.  These landforms affect weather patterns which will be discussed later as a way the hydrosphere interacts with the geosphere.  

Lesson Goal:

The Goal of this lesson is for students to identify how the movement of plates change the topography of the Earth. 

Success Criteria: 

Students will demonstrate success on this lesson goal by answering 100% of the questions on the exit ticket correctly. 

Preparing For The Lesson:

Warm Up:

  • A copy of the World Map Outline for each group (I laminated mine so I could use them again in the future).
  • A copy of the continents that have been cut out from the World Map Outline above to be used as puzzle pieces, (I copied them on cardstock so they puzzle pieces are thicker).

Guided Practice:


  • A copy of the Continental Drift Infographic from  This is a free resource that is 4 pages long.  I have copied the picture and information for continental drift front to back (used in this section), and the picture and information for plate tectonics front to back (used in the next section).
  • A copy of the Continental Drift Infographic from  This is a free resource that is 4 pages long.  I have copied the picture and information for continental drift front to back, and the picture and information for plate tectonics front to back. 
  • Paper for the "give me five" strategy.  


  • graham cracker for each student
  • peanut butter or other thick substance that is similar 

Wrap Up:  

Warm Up

10 minutes

Modeling Pangea to Today 

Today's lesson begins with a puzzle.   I provide each group with a set of the continents printed on card stock and colored from the World Map Outline.  These cut out pieces will be the puzzle pieces for the activity.   I also place a copy of the world map on the overhead for students to see.  I have groups place the continent puzzle pieces on their desk in their current location as shown on the map on the overhead.   


I then ask the groups to try and move the continents to fit together like a puzzle.  I circulate to watch them do this. As you can see in the map activity video, groups easily saw how some continents fit together but not all.  Once they got it, they saw the single land mass that was formed. 


When groups finish, they have all created one giant continent.  I explain: this is the way the Earth looked 250 million years ago.  The super-continent they just created was known as Pangea.  Scientists believe that the continents are shifting and have developed a theory called the Theory of Continental Drift. One reason they believe this to be true is because the shape of the continents looks like they once fit together just as you discovered when putting the puzzle together. 


Guided Practice

20 minutes

Evidence to Support That Pangea Once Existed 

I provide each student with a miniposter showing how the continents have looked at various points in history as they shifted apart to their present day position and information about evidence to support this theory.  This is part of an infopacket that is a free resource that I downloaded from the


I have students read with their elbow partner and identify five pieces of evidence that scientists have discovered that support the theory of continental drift.  I call this strategy 'give me five,' and I have them draw an outline of their hand and label each finger with one piece of evidence.  This is a strategy they use in language arts for writing as well.  The five facts that are in the article are: 

  • The shapes of the continents 
  • Fossils of mesosaurus have been found on the coasts of South American and South Africa and the animal was a freshwater animal that could not have swam across the ocean. 
  • Mountain rock of the same age and the same mineral make up has been found in both South American and Africa. 
  • Fossils of the same fern species have been found in several continents. 
  • Fossils of a land reptile, lystrosaurus, have been found in several continents.  


How the Shifting Occurs & What It Leads To 

I provide each student with another miniposter, this one covering Plate Tectonics, and the back side is information about plate tectonics.  These are also part of the infopacket from  I read the information on the back titled "The Science Behind the Drift," stopping at paragraph four when they mention the 15 plates and having students flip the paper over to see the outline of these plates.  We spend some time discussing the arrows in the picture and what the movement of these plates may cause to happen (earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountains forming). 


I continue reading until the end where student ideas on mountains, volcanoes, and earthquakes occurring is confirmed.  


20 minutes

Modeling How the Shifting of Plate Tectonics Affects the Topography of Earth 

I provide each student with a paper plate and a large scoop of peanut butter on it.  If you have allergies in your class you can use Nutella or caramel or something else.  I give them a spoon to smooth out the peanut butter on the plate.  While they are smoothing out the peanut butter I provide each student with a graham cracker that can be divided into 4 smaller pieces.  I have them break apart the graham cracker into the four pieces and place two of them on top of the peanut butter side by side so that they look attached.  

What does the peanut butter model? The semifluid mantle or magma under the crust 

What do the crackers model? The crust of the Earth 

I instruct students to take the two crackers and slide them past each other.  What would we see or feel here on Earth if that happened? An Earthquake.                                  

I instruct students to pull the crackers apart. What would we see or feel here on Earth if that happened? As you can see in the video of modeling plates being pulled apart, the peanut butter fills in the gap between the crackers.  Students  tell me that the peanut butter coming up models how the magma would come up and a volcano could possibly form.


Students return the crackers to the side by side position and I tell them to push the crackers towards each other.  As you can see in the video of modeling plates pushing together, the two crackers move up forming a bump.  What would we see or feel here on Earth if that occurred? Students tell me that a mountain would form. 


I then give students prompts such as show me how a volcano would form, or show me what causes an earthquake, or show me the movement that creates mountains.  I watch them move the crackers to model each prompt.  I am circulating to check for understanding of these concepts.  I give the prompts randomly several times until I am able to check all students and review with struggling students.

I allow students to use the other crackers that have not been in the peanut butter to remove the other two and eat them.  Having the two crackers that have not been in the peanut butter help keep it from getting too messy.   

Wrap Up

30 minutes

Exit Ticket 

As students are enjoying the plate tectonic treat, I pass out the Plate Tectonic Exit Ticket to each student.  They complete the exit ticket and I check them later.  I make three piles when I go through the exit tickets.  One pile is for those students who get 100% correct like the following two examples.  There were only 3 out of 19 students that got 100%, the majority of others missed 1 or 2. 


Another pile is for those who miss one or two questions, these students will only need a quick review.  I will ask these students review questions over the ones they miss during future review times throughout the unit.  There were 14 out of 19 students in this category.  Two of the examples are below.  There really was no pattern, many people missed questions 1 and 2, while several others missed one of the diagram labels.  Seeing that the majority of students fell into this category, tells me that I need to work in quite a bit of review.  


The third pile is for students who miss more than two. These students clearly did not understand the concepts being taught and will need complete reteaching.  I will assign an interactive lesson for them to complete on the student computers in the back of the room during free time. There is some reading with this so I will assign one of the students who need review as a reader for the ESE students.  There were only two students who missed more than 2 questions and both chose not write anything down.  They did not even make an attempt to answer.