Engage: This phase of the 5 E’s starts the process. An “engage” activity should do the following:

  1. Make connections between past and present learning experiences
  2. Anticipate activities and focus students’ thinking on the learning outcomes of current activities. Students should become mentally engaged in the concept, process, or skill to be learned.

(from Enhancing Education http://enhancinged.wgbh.org/research/eeeee.html)

Plate tectonics is an exciting subject to teach because almost everyone has some degree of fascination about volcanoes and earthquakes (and tsunamis these days too)… They commonly appear in public media/ movies, are the subject of some of the “world is about to end” type movies and documentaries – and most year 9 students would have seen the devastating effects of the Christchurch NZ earthquake in February 2011 and the even more horrific Japanese earthquake/ tsunami in March 2011.

Because of this natural curiosity – I think the best way to engage students in the beginning of a unit on plate tectonics would be to play some video clips of volcanoes erupting, things falling apart during earthquakes and tsunami waves engulfing coastlines.  These clips would also be a good starting point to determine how much students know and what alternate conceptions they have.

Introduction:  The hook…
Teacher will show short clips of the following

  • a volcano erupting


  • An earthquake shaking stuff about – e.g. NZ 2011 Christchurch earthquake
  • the Himalaya mountains
  • The March 2011 (or more recent if applicable) Japanese tsunami

Activity 1:  Round Robins (groups of 4)
Students will participate in a round robin activity (4 students to a group… students write their individual thoughts, collaborate with their group members to come up with agreed explanations and the group speaker will read out their answers during the group discussion) – Below are the topics for discussion

  • Question – these clips are all related to each other.  The clips showed a volcano, an earthquake, a mountain range and a tsunami.  What caused these events to occur? How are these things connected?
  • Question – what do you think is meant by the term “continental drift” – what do you know about it? how does it relate to the clips you saw?
  • Teacher will review how to keep a learning log of the unit (may be done in provided exercise books or as a blog or wiki)- to be used for summative assessment.  Students must write a summary and reflection at the end of each lesson – taking care of grammar and punctuation.  Log books will be collected for review at several times through the unit for formative assessment.  The Rubric indicating how the learning log will be marked can be found Learning Log Rubric.

The Round Robin topics could be used as diagnostic assessment  to determine students alternate conceptions about the topic.  Appropriate questioning when groups are stating their co-operative conclusions to the round robin activity could help to determine most general misconceptions students may have.  The different conceptions could be written on the board to emphasize activities we need to do to work out which ideas are most accurate and which are not accurate.

I found a good website that talks about students misconceptions about earth science at the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton  http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/intro/misconception_list.html.   The common misconceptions that are applicable to this unit I have put below in two sections – one would be misconceptions the students already have – the other would be misconceptions they may end up with if this unit is not taught properly.  I have organised it this way because for some of the points, students would have had no exposure to the topic so, like me, would have guessed blindly rather than having an accurate or inaccurate idea…  The misconceptions in the first bit are either the focus of the round robin or could be determined through appropriate questioning during this activity.


  • Only continents move (Wegener’s original concept, along with the common use of ‘Continental Drift’ term in general texts, secondary education earth science films, etc.)
  • Plate movement is imperceptible on a human timeframe (common use of fingernail growth analogy is only true for slowest plates and underestimates importance of motion).
  • Earthquakes occur from collapse of hollow spaces in the earth
  • The earth’s core is hollow, or large hollow spaces occur deep within Earth
  • Wind blowing through subterranean passages causes earthquakes 
  • Continental ‘shelves’ are similar to shelves in homes, extend out over edge of continent and can break and collapse to form tsunamis (so Boxing Day tsunami was due to shelf collapse)
  • All mountains are volcanoes 
  • Earthquakes are rare events 
  • The ground cracks opens during an earthquake to swallow people and buildings (comes from human centered approach)
  • Earth shaking is deadly (as opposed to building collapse, tsunamis, landslides, fire, etc.)


  • Crust and Lithosphere (or plates) are synonymous terms
  • The edge of a continent is the same thing as a plate boundary.
  • Most crust motions (especially those associated with processes of mountain building or deep sea trench formation) are due to vertical motions, not lateral (i.e. it is the lateral movement of plates that causes the mountains – not that there is vertical movement to cause them.
  • Divergent ocean ridges are due to vertical uplift or convergence, rather than divergence (In students’ experience, buckling is usually due to convergence or uplift, not heat/density differences, so illustrations of ridges do not readily fit with a pulling apart motion).
  • Present oceans only began as Pangea broke apart – tied to general idea that Pangea was the original continent at the Earth’s start (few educational earth science films mention what came before Pangea & emphasis on Atlantic spreading leads to Pacific being overlooked).
  • Over time there has been no significant change in ratio of oceanic to continental areas (idea of stasis is a common misconception, but this was also part of Lyell’s original concept).
  • Seismic waves involve the long distance net motion of particles

In the engage phase, I would include the history of the development of tectonic plate theory from Wegener’s early ideas about continental drift.  This will give students a broad outline and introduction to tectonics, as well as helping them into the mindset of what a “theory” is and how there are still things under debate and things scientists haven’t worked out yet.

When I was reading the development of plate tectonic theory it struck me what a perfect example of scientific method… Scientific method is one of the focuses of year 9 science (and indeed should be of all school science) – and is the focus of Science Inquiry Skills outlined in the National Curriculum documents and in the Ways of Working for the Queensland state curriculum.  The application of scientific method is also a focus of year 9 science in the Nature and Development of science  ACSHE157 (see curriculum notes) in Science as a Human Endeavour.  Students should already be familiar with scientific method as it would have been discussed in lab classes since at least year 7 – but perhaps not its application in developing widely accepted scientific theories.

Activity 2:  Scientific Method in action

  • Teacher will show students the following map
  • Question:  Who has heard of tectonic plate theory before?  Any ideas what it may be and how it is related to earthquakes/ volcanoes/ mountains?

  • Teacher will summarize Tectonic plate theory:  i.e.  is the theory that the Earth’s lithosphere is made up of plates, which have moved throughout Earth’s history. The theory explains the how and why behind mountains, volcanoes, and earthquakes, as well as how, long ago, similar animals could have lived at the same time on what are now widely separated continents.  This map shows all the major plates.
  • Teacher will play the clip below (a fantastic song on Wegener and continental drift) – FANTASTIC CLIP!!
  • Teacher will provide students with a written history of the development of tectonic plate theory from the days of Wegener to the confirmation of the theory in the 1970s.  See my post on “History, where the idea of plate tectonics come from” for an overview (can also be found in most year 10 science text books….) and ask students, in their groups of 4, to convert the text into a time line.  (this will help students to digest and summarize the text for themselves – technique from Harry Kanasa, Griffith University, 7034EPS, 2011).  Teacher will have pre-prepared a time line.  Students will read and summarize text into a time line.
  • Teacher will review the steps of scientific method to develop a theory – i.e.

  • Compare this with their normal lab scientific method (very similar)
  • Teacher will go through students time lines step by step (rotating groups for each point) and will ask the group what step of the scientific method flowchart the points fit into – writing the answers on the board.  Students will participate in scientific method activity and will ensure they have a copy of the time line and scientific method line for their log books.
  • Teacher will ask students about the difference between a theory and a law and ensure students are aware that while most accept the theory of plate tectonics you will always have people who dispute the theory and have their own hypothesis about continental drift (e.g. some people think the earth is expanding and that explains continental drift) – other hypotheses don’t stand up to the rigorous testing that allows them to become accepted widely accepted theories.
  • Class reflection
  • Homework – students will write up, individually, a KTW table about plate tectonics in their log books (they would have previous experience doing this) (as well as their regular summary and reflection).
                          what we know
                          what we think we know
                          what we want to find out
Next step – exploring tectonics, volcanoes and earthquakes