Tectonic Plates: Teaching strategies

Reflection on the unit/ teaching strategies

In reflection of the unit I thought I would do a SWOT analysis – this could be elaborated on further once the unit has been taught


  • Unit written with the Productive Pedagogies in mind – as described by the Queensland Government Department of Education and Training http://education.qld.gov.au/corporate/newbasics/html/pedagogies/pedagog.html.  The Productive Pedagogies are particularly designed for middle school environments and are particularly desirable for including diverse learners. and include sections of Intellectual Quality, Connectedness, Supportive Classroom Environment and Recognition of difference.  Anyone who has not come across these before READ THEM!!! makes a lot of sense and it would be great if these things were applied in every middle school classroom in the world
  • Very engaging and interesting unit – students of this age will particularly enjoy the DISASTER element of this class so most roads will lead to this element to ensure they stay engaged.
  • If I taught this unit I would also be engaged throughout the unit :O)
  • Community and indigenous involvement as well as connectivity to students’ local region (this could really be applied to any state in Australia since all states have either earthquake or past volcanic activity.
  • Caters for different learning styles
  • Contains various additions for extension students
  • Possibility for students to select assessment type – test or log book entries
  • Log book allows for continuous assessment – both formative and summative.  Serves as a guide to ensure students are not getting lost or on the wrong track.
  • The how volcanoes work website contains volcano quizzes and crosswords!!! these would be great for extension students.  Extension students could also work on their log book summaries and reflections if they finish any tasks early


  • Field trips could be time intensive.  Unit may need to be simplified if time requirements do not permit
  • I limited the amount of student choice when I was writing the teaching strategies – this would be dependent upon the class though – some would be more responsible if allowing students to choose their partners and assignment topic – others would take the situation to be a social event
  • Some of the co-operative learning techniques could be noisy
  • would be good to find a substitute demonstration for the volcanic eruption demonstration in the Explore phase, I have said to emphasis to students that we are talking about a physical change, rather than a chemical change but mixing bicarb and vinegar, at least in my head, reeks to much of chemical change and may be confusing…


  • There is an opportunity to work collaboratively with other teachers with this unit.  Tsunami waves and seismic waves would make fantastic fodder for maths classes, There is an opportunity to connect this subject with history (either ancient or modern) and an opportunity to connect it with SOSE in looking at human impacts of natural disasters.
  • There is an opportunity to extend this unit to move into a life and living unit.  There is also an opportunity to extend the physics in this unit by focusing on energy conservation and transformation.
  • There is an opportunity to be flexible with assessment in this unit – to either make assessment through the learning log or through a test.


  • Noise is a possible threat… A great tip was given by a teacher at a presentation I went to last year (horror upon horror but I can’t find her name…. sorry….) – she mentioned drawing a noise scale on the board and informing students they need to keep within an appropriate range – if they get to loud then mark the noise scale in red and bring it to the student’s attention they are being too noisy… maybe by clapping 3 times or something.
  • Explore activities could be messy… would be good if students wore lab coats perhaps…
  • Students involved in the Assessment 1 could have difficulties working with each other – or one student may be sick which may leave the other in the lurch.  If this occurs I would put the partnerless student in with the group who were covering the same Natural Disaster, if the student doesn’t wish to work alone (some students would opt for completing the assessment on their own if it was already part finished.

My objectives (to make sure I have fulfilled them all…) By the end of this unit I want students to be able to:

  1.  Recognise that a scientific theory is developed and refined over time through rigorous testing
  2.  Recognise the major tectonic plates on a world map
  3.  Recognise different boundary types and their properties (converging, diverging, transform)
  4.  Understand convection currents and their ability to drag lithospheric plates around
  5.  Understand how plate boundary activity leads to sea floor spreading, volcanoes and earthquakes
  6.  Recognise different kinds of volcanoes are due to different kinds of eruptions and the silica composition of the magma is responsible for the explosiveness of the eruption.
  7. Recognise hot spot activity may produce volcanoes and that hot spots stay relatively stationary, in comparison to the moving plates
  8. Recognise scientists’ roles in understanding, assessing and monitoring tectonic activity, the role of structural engineers in developing tsunami breaks and earthquake-safe buildings and how technological advances.
  9. Recognise the technology used in monitoring of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes and how advances in technology have increased our understanding of plate tectonics
  10. Recognise Australia’s tectonic history, including around the Gold Coast, and acknowledge the indigenous perspectives of these events
  11. Understand how seismic waves, liquefaction and tsunamis occur

YEP!!! have covered all that (plus some perhaps…)

Reflection on this assignment:

  • I loved it!!! my favourite assignment of all time… I highly recommend doing the assignment either as a blog or as an individual wiki page – the advantage of a wiki would be that it could be better organised (you could move things about) – you can’t do that so well with a blog….
  • I have learned so much about geology and continue to bore my friends and family about the subject – I have also learned heaps about the Gold Coast’s history.
  • I want to acknowledge Harry Kanasa, Griffith University Gold Coast Campus, my tutor for 7034EPS who taught me many of the learning strategies used in the unit part of this blog… THANKS HEAPS!!! and also, my other lecturers and tutors at Griffith who have filled my brain with productive pedagogies, constructivism and all other kinds of beaut stuff!!!
Keep tuned for more exciting stuff on this blog… I have decided to keep it to review other science topics… 

Evaluate: This phase of the 5 E’s encourages learners to assess their understanding and abilities and lets teachers evaluate students’ understanding of key concepts and skill development (from Enhancing Education http://enhancinged.wgbh.org/research/eeeee.html)

  • For the elaborate phase, students will present their Disaster Reports (Assessment 2) – likely to take 1 1/2 lessons.  There will be a minute or 2 discussion time after each presentation and presentations are to go for around 7 mins (give or take 1 min).  Presentations will be marked according to the rubric (click link):  Assessment 2 RUBRIC.
  • Student learning logs (Assessment 1) will be handed in at the end of the unit/ final lesson.  The rubric for the learning log would have been provided to students and discussed in the first lesson of the unit.  Learning logs will be marked according to the rubric (click link):  Learning Log RUBRIC.

Student reflection

Class discussion

  • In the end of the final class of the unit, time will be taken for students to reflect on their learning.  The original diagnostic assessment questions from the first lesson will be revisited, and students will reflect on how their answers have changed. The teacher will ask students what they liked most and least about the unit, what they found the most interesting and what surprised them the most.  Students will be asked to reflect on what they would like to know more about and any other comments.

This reflection time is an important part of the constructivism approach.  In addition to helping students, the reflection time can assist teachers in modifying their unit/ lessons for future classes.

Elaborate: This phase of the 5 E’s extends students’ conceptual understanding and allows them to practice skills and behaviors. Through new experiences, the learners develop deeper and broader understanding of major concepts, obtain more information about areas of interest, and refine their skills (from Enhancing Education http://enhancinged.wgbh.org/research/eeeee.html)

In the elaborate phase we want students to extend and deepen their understanding of plate tectonics and apply their knowledge to a range of situations.

The assessment piece was discussed in my post – More on curriculum links, assessment and revisiting the quiz.

In the extend phase, I would like students to apply the knowledge they have gained in previous classes, to understand volcanic and seismic activity in Australia.  Australia has an abundance of mineral resources resulting from past volcanic activity, and an abundance of coastal rainforests and rich, fertile, volcanic soil.   A bit of time spent in the classroom discussing Australian volcanic history could be followed by a field trip to one of our local volcanic artefacts (such as Mt Warning, Lamington Plateau or Burleigh Headlands).  If an excursion is not possible, Google Earth can be used to view the map from above and leads you to a fantastic information area containing information about the Tweed Shield volcano (and has pictures from all different angles).  The “Big Volcano” website (http://www.bigvolcano.com.au/), also has links to our  region’s volcanic history and John Seach, a local Brisbane volcanologist, has a fantastic website listing all the past volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis in Australia, including the Tweed shield volcano http://www.volcanolive.com/australia.html) as does the Romsey Australia earthquake update website http://home.iprimus.com.au/foo7/volcmap.html.  And ooohhh oooh oooh I just found a super reference here http://www.mrkscience.com/planbook/Earth%20Science/Apr12010/Volcanoes%20Teacher%20Notes.pdf  from Geo science Australia.  The Gold Coast has a rich indigenous past and our indigenous population view our volcanoes quite differently – It would be nice in this section if we could have a local indigenous person talk to the class about Indigenous perspectives of our volcanic region.  Indigenous presenters are available through the Minjungbal Aboriginal Museum in Tweed Heads, Gold Coast.

Students will be aware of minor fault lines, from knowledge gained in the explain section, and this can also be applied to Australia to explain our seismic activity.  Geoscience Australia is involved in monitoring seismic activity, performing risk assessments and producing potential hazard plans and warning systems and there is an abundance of information on their website about these systems http://www.ga.gov.au.  It is predicted there will be a major earthquake around Western Australia or South Australia at some time in the near future and the Geoscience website also mentions the possibility that mining could be responsible for worsening of earthquake activity in Australia.

Lesson 5: Volcanoes and Earthquakes in Australia 


  • Hook – Teacher will play the following clip

about the 2010 Earthquake in Kalgoorlie, WA.

  • Think: Pair: Share – why does Australia have earthquakes  when we are not on a tectonic plate boundary (formative assessment to ensure students understand the concept of minor fault lines)?
  • Think: Pair: Share – Australia has many dormant and extinct volcanoes, yet we are not on a tectonic plate boundary – what kind of volcanoes are our volcanoes likely to be? What kind of lava are they likely to have erupted the most? (this will get students to apply their information about hotspots and basalt lava to form shield volcanoes).
  • The focus of the class today is AUSTRALIA
Activity 1: Earthquakes in Australia 
  • Concept map – Students will help teacher compile a concept map on the board about what they know about Earthquakes
  • Teacher will ask What large earthquakes do you know about in Australia’s history?
  • Teacher will prompt students by asking, what is meant by a large earthquake? i.e. applying their knowledge of magnitude of earthquakes.
  • Teacher will provide students with a map of Australia, with its fault lines, for their log books.
From your map – where do you think the areas most likely to have Earthquakes would be?
  • Teacher will show students an earthquake hazard map of Australia, developed by Geoscience Australia.
  • Students will be instructed to research the Geoscience Australia website and answer the following questions in their log books (may be done in pairs)
Go to http://www.ga.gov.au/earthquakes/ and view the earthquake activity in Australia and the surrounding region.
  1. Have any earthquakes occurred in Australia in the past 24 hours? the past week? what magnitude were they?
  2. Look at the area the earthquakes occurred – does this coincide with areas of high fault lines on your map? or areas of high hazard (in pink) on the hazard map?
  3. What earthquakes have occurred in the surrounding regions near Australia? Are these earthquakes more numerous or of higher magnitude? WHY do you think seismic activity is higher in this region? (note:  I have been watching this map for a few weeks and there are always numerous dots (indicating earthquakes) at the plate boundary between the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates.  There is also usually activity, small Earthquakes under magnitude 3,  in WA and SA.)  
  4. Click on the most significant earthquake in the Pacific Rim area (around Indonesia) – you will be taken to a screen where you can click on the dot and “view details” about the earthquake.  Where was the earthquake and what was its magnitude? did it generate a tsunami risk (indicated on the left bar)?
  5. If you explore the data on this earthquake you ill find an estimation of the distance it would have been felt, along with the distance it may have caused damage.  Which type of seismic waves are responsible for most of the estimated damage? To test students knowledge about surface waves vs S waves and P waves.  
  6. You will also see that some seismic waves were recorded on seismic monitoring stations in Australia – if you click on one of the yellow triangles on the Australian map, you will find a picture of the seismic reading.  Which seismic waves were being detected by this monitoring station? Why do you say that? This is to test students knowledge of P and S waves and their ability to travel through water.  
  7. Go back to your starting page at  http://www.ga.gov.au/earthquakes/ and change the REFINE options on the top menu bar to “Last 30 days” and “Australia Only” – save your options.  (This will show you earthquakes in Australia in the past 30 days).  Have there been many earthquakes?  How many? There are likely to be 35-40 with at least a couple large enough to have had seismic readings done.  
  8. Click on the largest spot and assess the data, as you did with the Indonesian earthquake through the “view details” section.  Click on one of the seismic monitoring stations near the event and look at the seismograph – what waves would the station have been recording? Click on a monitoring station some distance away from the event.  What seismic waves would the station have been recording? Are they the same waves as the other station? Why? Again – ability to apply knowledge of s and p waves and how they travel
  9. Review the Earthquake Historic Events to see the significant earthquakes in our history and the Tsunami events to see tsunami activity.  These events have triggered an increase in funding for seismic monitoring and tsunami warning systems, what other role does the government play in the impact of natural disasters? There is a section on the website overviewing PREVENTION, PREPAREDNESS, RESPONSE, RECOVERY.  This details the money poured into predicting natural disasters and means to prevent them (e.g. building codes), prepare for them (e.g. tsunami warning systems), responding to natural disasters (e.g. having a plan for disaster relief centers) and recovery (e.g. funds specifically in the coffers for rebuilding disaster hit cities). 
  • Teacher will supervise class through activity – pointing them in the right direction in their log book notes to find any answers needed.  
Class reflection…
  • What did you learn? Did anything surprise you? Teacher will update the class concept map on the board with the help of the class.
Activity 2:  Volcanoes in Australia
  • Teacher will ask the class if anyone seen a volcano or been to or near a volcano?  At the beginning of the class I asked you what would have been the most common kind of volcano in Australia and why? What did we decide?
  • Teacher will ask – Do we have any active volcanoes in Australia? Are we likely to have any in the future?
  • Read the following website from Romsey Australia (volcano section only) http://home.iprimus.com.au/foo7/volcmap.html
  • Teacher will tell students to summarize the notes on Australia’s volcanic history, risk of present activity and prediction of future activity in point form (do not worry about types of plants – just volcanic activity)  – Teacher will supervise students through this task.  What are the main points you have learned?  Teacher will go round the class and ask each student to outline one point from the text and will write them on the board (or on the computer).  The text outlines Victoria’s potentially active volcano (i.e. stated now as dormant rather than extinct), discusses the presence of a hotspot thought to have been triggered or re-activated by the King Island earthquake in 2002.  Looks at Lord Howe island and the surrounding seamount (hotspot caused…), and reviews the volcanic activity in Australia listing the lava fields and volcanoes down the east coast of Australia caused by Australia travelling over a hotspot – evidence of this is that the volcanoes become younger as you move southward (SW) and Australia is moving North (NE). 
At this point students could be taken on a field trip to Mount Warning or Tamborine Mountain and have the volcanic history of the region explained to them – followed by a trip on the return foot to Minjungbal Aboriginal Museum in Tweed Heads for a talk on Aboriginal connections to volcanic landmarks/ Dreamtime explanations of earthquakes.  Alternatively, students could do an in-school field trip through Google Earth, reading the background information on volcanic activity in the area (from the Big Volcano website), while taking a guided flyby tour of the region (like only Google Earth can do!!!).  An indigenous representative from te Minjungbal Museum could then visit the school for a talk on the Aboriginal connection to Big Volcano.
At the end of the lesson should come a class discussion and reflection.  At the end of the lesson students will also be given their Assessment 2 task – The Disaster Report, the rubric used for marking (see below), and their allocated groups/topics.
Students will be given the next weeks lesson to work on their reports, the students need to communicate prior to this class to begin their research on the topic.  This could be done in friendship pairs or teacher allocated pairs, depending on the class.
Website links will be given to students to assist in helping them to find relevant information about the event if they are having difficulties.

ASSESSMENT 2:  The Disaster Report    50%

You are a scientist reporting to the government on a natural disaster.  You, and your partner, will prepare a 7 minute long presentation (PowerPoint or Multimedia) on the event.     

Your presentation should include:

  1. What occurred and When
  2. Where your disaster was situated on a map and pictures/ video footage
  3. Why/ how the disaster occurred (include an overview of tectonics behind the disaster and any other related important science – e.g. type of volcano, why tsunamis occur etc.)
  4. What warning devices were in place and what could have been done to reduce the impact of the disaster?

You will work in pairs for this activity and will be allocated a natural disaster (one of the list below) to investigate – time will be provided in class and you should also spend time outside school hours to prepare your presentation.

Natural Disasters:

  • Mt Krakatoa,  Indonesia – August 26-28, 1883 – Volcanic eruption/ tsunami
  • Tohoku, Japan – March 11, 2011 – Earthquake/ tsunami
  • Indian Ocean, Sumatra, Indonesia – December 26, 2004 – Earthquake/ tsunami
  • Nevado del Ruiz, Columbia – November 13, 1985 – Volcanic eruption/ mudslide
  • Christchurch, New Zealand – February 22, 2011 – Earthquake/ liquefaction
  • Mount Pelée, Martinique – April 23 – May 8, 1932 – Volcanic eruption/Pyroclastic flow
Click below for the assessment rubric for this task

Explain: This phase of the 5 E’s helps students explain the concepts they have been exploring. They have opportunities to verbalize their conceptual understanding or to demonstrate new skills or behaviors. This phase also provides opportunities for teachers to introduce formal terms, definitions, and explanations for concepts, processes, skills, or behaviors.

There are really 4 main topics I want students to know about in more detail than has been covered already.  They are

  1. Constructive Volcanism
  2. Destructive Volcanism
  3. Hot Spot Volcanism
  4. Earthquakes (including effects e.g. tsunamis)
A Jigsaw activity would be a perfect way for students to get clued up on these topics while remaining engaged.  I would do this jigsaw activity over 2 weeks perhaps (or 1 1/2 lessons)- time permitting – to give students enough time for adequate group discussions and a class discussion about each topic on completion of the Jigsaw activity.
For those who do not know about Jigsaw activities… This comes from The Jigsaw Classroom website http://www.jigsaw.org/steps.htm

Jigsaw in 10 Easy Steps
The jigsaw classroom is very simple to use. If you’re a teacher, just follow these steps:

  1. Divide students into 5- or 6-person jigsaw groups. The groups should be diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, and ability.
  2. Appoint one student from each group as the leader. Initially, this person should be the most mature student in the group.
  3. Divide the day’s lesson into 5-6 segments. For example, if you want history students to learn about Eleanor Roosevelt, you might divide a short biography of her into stand-alone segments on: (1) Her childhood, (2) Her family life with Franklin and their children, (3) Her life after Franklin contracted polio, (4) Her work in the White House as First Lady, and (5) Her life and work after Franklin’s death.
  4. Assign each student to learn one segment, making sure students have direct access only to their own segment.
  5. Give students time to read over their segment at least twice and become familiar with it. There is no need for them to memorize it.
  6. Form temporary “expert groups” by having one student from each jigsaw group join other students assigned to the same segment. Give students in these expert groups time to discuss the main points of their segment and to rehearse the presentations they will make to their jigsaw group. 
  7. Bring the students back into their jigsaw groups.
  8. Ask each student to present her or his segment to the group. Encourage others in the group to ask questions for clarification.
  9. Float from group to group, observing the process. If any group is having trouble (e.g., a member is dominating or disruptive), make an appropriate intervention. Eventually, it’s best for the group leader to handle this task. Leaders can be trained by whispering an instruction on how to intervene, until the leader gets the hang of it.
  10. At the end of the session, give a quiz on the material so that students quickly come to realize that these sessions are not just fun and games but really count.
So in my Jigsaw activity, I would allocate Jigsaw groups with an even distribution of diverse learners through the groups (e.g. 6 groups of 4).  There would be 4 “expert” tables – each with information about the topic students are to become expert in. The expert table would include a task or guide sheet to guide students to what needs to be researched, any printed material or appropriate books, and links to appropriate websites (teacher guided so students do not get confused with alternative volcanoes or materials which are not consistent with the nomenclature used in the rest of the unit).

  • Example of the outline of the task sheets for each expert table….
1.  Your topic  is Constructive Volcanism.  Research the materials and websites provided and write notes (and draw diagrams where appropriate) relating to the following:
  1. What constructive volcanism is
  2. Types of volcanism at divergent boundaries
  3. Oceanic Ridges
  4. Rifts
  5. Lava composition – most common type – other types of lava which may be present
  6. Pillow lava
  7. Gas composition
  8. Eruption types commonly occurring with divergent volcanoes and mechanism
  9. Unique features of Iceland and its volcanism
  10. Features of current erupting divergent volcanoes
2.  Your topic  is Destructive Volcanism.  Research the materials and websites provided and write notes (and draw diagrams where appropriate) relating to the following:
  1. What destructive volcanism is
  2. Types of volcanism at convergent boundaries
  3. Ocean/ Terrestrial Arcs / the Ring of Fire
  4. Trenches
  5. Pyroclastic flow
  6. Pyroclastic particles/ tephra
  7. Lava composition/ eruption types/ mechanism
  8. mudslides/ lahas
  9. Scoria cones, fumaroles, geysers
  10. Calderas
  11. Current erupting convergent volcano notes
3.  Your topic  is Hot Spots.  Research the materials and websites provided and write notes (and draw diagrams where appropriate) relating to the following:
  1. What hot spots are (and convection cells)
  2. Where they occur
  3. Types of volcanoes at hotspots
  4. Formation of seamounts and volcanic islands
  5. Lava composition/ eruption types/ mechanism
  6. Pyroclastic particles
  7. scoria cones, fumaroles, geysers
  8. Calderas
  9. Current erupting Hot Spot volcano features.
4.  Your topic  is Earthquakes.  Research the materials and websites provided and write notes (and draw diagrams where appropriate) relating to the following:
  1. What they are and where they occur (and how often)
  2. Major and minor faults
  3. How earthquakes occur
  4. seismic wave types and features
  5. liquefaction
  6. landslides
  7. tsunamis
  • The jigsaw group will split, with the 4 students in the group going to their allocated expert table.  The students will research their topic (there is an abundance of information on each of these topics in my “What I need to know” posts along with links to appropriate and consistent websites.  (The posts would be appropriate for the level of a 9-10 student).  There is a good YouTube clip on the ring of fire here

which provides some good information.

  • Once the students have read up and taken notes on their topics.  The expert groups will sit together and review their information.  Together, the expert groups will compile a collaborative report on their subject which will be agreed on by all students.  The teacher will encourage students to write the review of their expert topic IN POINT FORM – to make it easier to remember points to explain to their group – but will encourage students to draw diagrams.
  • When all students/ expert groups are satisfied they have become experts in their topics, the students go back to their original jigsaw groups and teach their expert topic to their group members.  It is possible for jigsaw groups to have access to a computer when teaching their group members – it may help to show some interactive diagrams when explaining a concept (such as seismic wave movement) – but the computer should not replace direct teaching and should only be used when absolutely necessary.  Group members will take notes in their log books on their group members topics as well as teaching their own topic.  When the groups are satisfied they have covered and understood all of the topics there will be a class discussion where the teacher will ask questions about the topics.  At this point it may be a good idea for the class to compile a concept map of what they have learned in the class.
  • Any points which have not been covered accurately can be addressed by the teacher.
  • Review the activity and ask students what they enjoyed or didn’t enjoy.  Teacher should review log books prior to the next lesson to ensure all students are on-track (formative assessment).
I think this activity would be a fantastic tool for keeping students engaged through learning.  The activity will provide students with knowledge that can be applied in the elaborate phase, which will in-turn deepen students understanding.  

Explore: This phase of the 5 E’s provides students with a common base of experiences. They identify and develop concepts, processes, and skills. During this phase, students actively explore their environment or manipulate materials. (from Enhancing Education http://enhancinged.wgbh.org/research/eeeee.html)

The purpose of the explore phase is for students to get some hands-on experience with tectonics/ earthquakes and volcanoes and to provide scaffolding for more detailed learning in the Explain phase.  Students are going to find tectonics associated events, such as volcanoes and earthquakes, more exciting than tectonic plate theory itself, so spending time on these events and fitting them into plate theory, will ensure students gain a deep understanding of plate tectonics.

By the end of the explore phase:

Lesson 2.  Exploring Plate Tectonics – Students will be able to recall the earth’s structure, understand the theory that the lithosphere is broken into plates which move around due to convection currents, recognise the large plates, recognise where Australia is on the Indo-Australian plate and to understand the different types of plate boundaries (converging, diverging, transverse).  

Lesson 3.  Exploring volcanoes and earthquakes – Students will recognize volcanoes occur mostly on plate boundaries, although not all.  Students will recognise there are different kinds of volcanoes and the volcanoes appearance has to do with the composition of the lava erupted from it.  Students will recognize earthquakes occur mostly on plate boundaries but can occur in other areas due to minor faults.  Students will recognise earthquakes are measured in terms of magnitude (or amount of shaking) and that different soil types and building materials, as well as the magnitude, will determine the destructive damage in an area experiencing an earthquake.  Students will recognise that earthquakes can cause tsunami waves.  

Lesson 2.  Exploring Plate Tectonics 

  • Introduction:  The hook I would use to start this class is replaying the Alfred Wegener YouTube clip from the last class (see the Engage phase) and draw up a list of what we know, what we think we know and what we want to learn on the board, compiled from students homework.  Most kids will wont to know how volcanoes erupt and why earthquakes happen so these will be on the want to learn list.

The earth’s structure isn’t too difficult to comprehend, but it is important that students know all the parts and properties to understand convection currents and plate movement.  I have seen some long-winded classes spent on earth’s structure cutting up eggs etc – but, by year 9, it is likely students would have already seen pictures of the earth with a core/mantle and crust.   to gain a knowledge of the earth’s structure I would put up a picture of the earth on the interactive whiteboard/ class computer and some written text about the structure of the earth  and get students to draw a labelled slice of the earth and dot point summary to describe the properties of the components.


Explore Activity 1.  The Earth – whats inside?

  • Teacher will display the following image on the board/ interactive white board

  • Teacher will provide students with text describing each of the layers in detail (an example of the make-up of the layers can be found in my “What is the earth?” post.  Students will be asked to draw a diagram of a slice out of the earth (pizza slice shape) in their log books, to label the diagram and summarize the properties of each component in point form next to the label (properties would be derived from the text).
  • The teacher could draw a slice on the board and students could label the parts and give properties on request from the teacher as formative assessment (or log books handed in at the end of the class).  It is vital that students understand the asthenosphere + crust = lithosphere and the lithosphere is broken into plates that sit over the mantle.  It is also important students have acknowledged the fluid properties of the asthenosphere and mantle to understand convection currents.

The next logical steps would be to look at the lithospheric tectonic plates then convection currents and then boundary types.

Students would have seen a picture of the world map with tectonic plates on it in the last class (see Engage phase) – I think it would be useful for students to see this map both in 2D and 3D formats.  I think it would be a good idea for students to stick a map of the earth, with its tectonic plate boundaries, into their log books to refer back to and add to as the unit progresses.  It is important students understand the nature of the plates being able to move to some degree.  I have been playing around with this concept and thought perhaps a lamington tin with golden syrup mixed with a little red food colour could be set up in the class with clear contact covered “jigsaw” of the tectonic plates assembled on top.  This would allow students to see the plates can move and can then be used to demonstrate why they would move with convection currents (in fact the cake tin could even be put on a heat source as it would then move the plates around…)

I just tried this demonstration to see if it works!!!

It works very well… but needs a bit of improvement.  firstly – i didn’t have a lamington tin so my A4 paper was slightly smaller than the baking pan I used instead… I would make sure the map fits perfectly into the pan (not too difficult as you can photocopy it larger or smaller.  I didn’t contact the paper and it worked fine still.  I would have used a glass Pyrex lasagna dish if I had one – so you could see the lovely red mantle and it would be easier for the class to see.  I would also have used more golden syrup since I only used a layer a about a cm deep – perhaps a couple of cm would be better…

My map I used has its good points and bad points – the bad point is that the Australian plate is cut in half – the good point is the colour coding which does make it easier to visualize the plate concept.  I think it is probably the best I have found for this demonstration – as I said in the “plate tectonics” post, I liked it because it had the plate boundaries running through NZ and not all of them do…  I would put arrows on the plates too – to show the direction the plate moves in…

So I put my pan on a heat source… I held it on-top of a light candle (actually so the candle was over the oceanic ridge…) and it does indeed move the plates – in-fact it moved the plates apart at the ridge and lifted the paper if I put the candle flame mid-plate… so all up a very good demonstration.

Explore Activity 2:  Convection, dragging, bumping and sliding

So after establishing in the minds of the students that the plates CAN move about and that is why “continential drift” actually occurs we need to let them know the movement is actually quite consistent – e.g. Australia is moving at 35degrees east of north at a rate of 6cm per year and other plates are also moving at a relatively consistent rate… so what is moving the plates?   So this is where convection currents would come in…

To demonstrate convection currents better I thought perhaps showing the students a lava lamp would be the way to go… I have found some demonstrations with lava lamps and convection currents – like at the Burke Museum of Natural History website http://www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/earthquakes/bigone/science.html – if a lava lamp is not available then there are 5,630 of them on YouTube… this is one of the better ones… Uploaded by  on Jan 13, 2007.

Students would, more than likely, have come across convection when doing weather or climate change topics but would not necessarily be able to immediately apply that understanding the theory of convection currents in the mantle.  Students would also have had experience with states of matter and buoyancy from year 7 and 8 (see Australian National Curriculum content descriptions here http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Science/Curriculum/F-10),  so would be familiar with the concept of things becoming less dense when they are heated up and density being related to buoyancy.   The lava lamp gives a good visual demonstration of convection currents which could be transferred to the mantle convection current concept without too much imagination… it would make a good Predict Observe Explain demonstration too if you had a lava lamp in the classroom.

Once students have grasped the concept of convection currents we could then apply a heat source to our pyrex dish and indeed see that the plates will move about.  from this point remind, students that the plate movement is not random… our plate is moving north-east, other plates are moving in different directions being dragged by convection current cells (the cells themselves forming in consistent regions in the mantle and circulating in a particular direction to form a cell…

  • Teacher asks the question:  What moves the plates about? – hint – the Indo-Australian plate is being moved north-east and other plates are being moved in the direction of the arrows on them…
  • Question:  What is convection? lets look at a lava lamp.  Who knows how it works? what happens to the particles of a liquid when it heats up?
  • Teacher and students discuss convection and the concept of convection currents with teacher asking questions to jog students memories of the concepts.
  • Predict- Observe- Explain:  Go back to the syrup/paper demonstration and apply heat – get students to predict what will happen if you apply a heat source.  Apply the heat source over the atlantic ridge – students will observe and then attempt to explain what would be occurring to move the plates.
  • Teacher will explain the concept of a “convection cell” which continually drags a plate around.

Show students the general direction each plate is being dragged because of convection currents – I would use the map they are used to seeing and add arrows to it…

Back to the demonstration with my paper plates and the golden syrup mantle (it may be useful to do these demonstrations with a webcam if it is available – so the whole class can see while seated rather than crowding around…).  Get students to note that the plates are all moving in different directions – some are being dragged together (e.g. South American and Nazca Plate), some are being dragged apart (e.g. South American and African plates) and some are being dragged sideways to drag of others (e.g. with parts of the Indo-Australian plate and Eurasian plate.  You can demonstrate what happens with the golden syrup plates using fingers to slide the plates around… If you move just the South American plate it will push into and recede under the Nazca Plate and will leave a gap of visible golden syrup.  What happens to the mantle magma when it is exposed to the surface? it cools to a solid and forms new oceanic crust – this happens continuously and is called sea floor spreading.

A fantastic animation can be found here (click where it says convection currents)

convection currents from Absorb Learning http://www.absorblearning.com/media/item.action?quick=12p

So this would lead into the 3 plate types – converging, diverging and transform

Instruct students to draw a diagram of the three types and label them – Converging (CRUSHED TOGETHER), Diverging (DRAWN APART) and Transform (TRYING TO SLIP AWAY).

  • Teacher will demonstrate plates moving with the syrup/ paper demonstration.  Students will observe subduction, plates being moved apart to expose syrup etc and will participate in discussion, as described above.  Students will observe animation of plate movement indicating subduction and sea floor spreading above
  • Students will draw labelled diagrams of the 3 types of boundary interactions and write a description of sea floor spreading
  • Students will transpose the arrows from the map to the map in their log books to recall the direction each of the plates are moving in.
  • http://www.teachersdomain.org/asset/ess05_int_shake/ is a fantastic link (I just found!!!) – interactive plates – you can push them to see what happens with transform boundaries, drag them together to see what happens with convergent boundaries and drag them apart to see sea floor spreading in action.

I have been playing around with ways to visually represent subduction zones – I think the animation above is very good at visualising subduction.  If students have difficulty with the concept though I played around with using different materials to demonstrate this.  Most websites say polystyrene – it doesn’t indicate differences in density between oceanic crust and continental crust though… The best solution I found was squares of corrugated cardboard.  If you wet one piece of the corrugated cardboard and left the other piece dry, the wet/more dense piece does subduct under the dry piece – and the dry piece ripplies up a bit as the wet piece subducts underneath.

  • Predict- Observe- Explain: Teacher will show students what happens at converging plate boundaries where one plate boundary is oceanic and the other is continental by using wet corrugated cardboard demonstration (see above).  Student could also be given similar squares of cardboard to play around with to determine what would happen if two of the pieces were dragged together.  Teacher will ensure the students get the idea of mountains and subduction associated with these boundaries.
  • Show students the clip from How Stuff Works – about the discovery of mid ocean ridges and how sea floor spreading and subduction balance out the area of earths crust http://videos.howstuffworks.com/science-channel/29268-100-greatest-discoveries-sea-floor-spreading-video.htm.
  • Teacher will give students the following task for homework  and will reflect on what was learned in the class.  Teacher will encourage students to keep their log books up to date with notes and put the answer to their questions in their log books (will be collected in the next class to ensure students are all on the right track) and do their regular summary and reflection.
  1. Explain why the earth is 4.5 billion years old but the oldest oceanic crust is 200 million years old.
  2. What is the alternative name commonly given to tectonic plate boundaries? (hint – think of earthquakes)
  3. By looking at your tectonic plate map, describe why the Himalaya Mountains are being formed
By the end of the first lesson in the explore phase – students should have gained hands-on experience and will have scaffolding to understand volcanoes and earthquakes from a scientific point of view.  and scaffolding to be able to understand how plate tectonics lead to the layout of continents as we know them today, and will understand some of the concepts discussed during the “exploring volcanoes and earthquakes” phase below.

Lesson 3:  Exploring volcanoes and earthquakes

Space:  Class computers are needed for this lesson (one per student or pair) – a table is also required for demonstrations.  This class will preferably be done in a lab but could be managed in an alternative location if necessary (i.e. in a computer room)
This class will provide scaffolding for more in-depth learning about volcanoes in the Explain section – It gives a general overview which will allow students to fill in with scientific content in the next lesson.
The most logical hook for this lesson would be a clip of a volcano erupting (luckily – there is no shortage of them on the internet). Secondly would be to look at a map showing active volcanoes so students can see they mostly occur on or ear plate boundaries (but a few do not).  Google Earth has combined with the Global Volcanism Program to map all the active volcanoes – and you can zoom in to look at individual volcanoes and get information about them as well…
  • Teacher will introduce the class by playing a YouTube clip of a volcano erupting.
  • Teacher will give students a handout to stick in their log books of current active volcanoes (or will email the map if students are doing a blog or wiki (from http://geophysics.ou.edu/geol1114/notes/volcanoes/volcanic.html)
  • Think, Pair, Share – What can you tell me about this map?  Lead students to the point that most volcanoes occur on plate boundaries and most also lie in a ring, called the Ring of Fire on the map, made up of the convergent boundaries around the Pacific Plate and Nazca Plate.
  • Explore Google Earth Volcanoes.  Google Earth should already be loaded onto computers – students will be advised to go to the Global Volcanism website http://www.volcano.si.edu/world/globallists.cfm?listpage=googleearth and click on the links to the kml files for the holocene and current activity volcanoes (plate boundaries/ plate boundary types are also switched on).
  • Students will explore Google Earth volcanoes and investigate the following
  1. What volcano types can you find (click on the volcano pictures or triangles)
  2. Is there a pattern with where volcanoes are in relation to plate boundary types?
  3. What is the most common type of volcano found near convergent boundaries?
  4. What is the most common type of volcano found near/ at convergent boundaries?
  5. Are there any volcanoes at transform boundaries?
  6. What type of volcanoes are most common intra plate?
  7. Look at the descriptions of a few stratovolcanoes and shield volcanoes – you will see lava flow indicated on the description  – are there differences in the lava type and the way the lava is described to come out of the volcano?
  • Class discussion – Teacher will review students answers and will write patterns on the board in a concept or mind map
  • Students will see a pattern between volcano types and plate boundaries and will see that shield volcanoes usually have fast flowing lava, while stratovolcanoes have more “tephra”, explosions, cones. lava domes.
  • Discuss the relationship between lava and what a volcano looks like – a volcano is really made up of its own lava and sometimes tephra and rock particles it erupts.  Volcanoes look different because of different composition of lava.  The main element involved in making lava different is silica – the more silica the lava contains the more viscous and sticky it is (think of silicon baking trays – they feel like rubbery plasticky stuff – so silica makes lava more plasticky.
I played around with how I could demonstrate this plasticity for kinesthetic learners.  After exploding red-food-colour-laden soft drink and bicarb/vinegar mix all over myself and the walls a few times I DECIDED AGAINST USING ANYTHING WITH A LID!!!!! 
I really wanted to do something with soft drink because the depressurization and bubbles escaping from soft drink is a good analogy to describe what is happening in a volcano… I was not in luck though – everything was too messy and explosive.  I opted, regretfully, for a boring chemical reaction (which I didn’t want to use because the lava coming out of a volcano represents a physical rather than chemical reaction…)… 
  • Describe to students how gas comes out of lava once it reaches the earths crust at a lower pressure.  Take a soft drink bottle to class and ask students what is happening when the lid is opened on the soft drink.  Open the lid so the students can see no bubbles in the drink becomes bubbles once the pressure in the bottle is reduced.
  • Predict, observe, explain:  Here we have 3 magma chambers – the first contains basalt lava with a low silica content, the second contains lava with a medium silica content and the third contains lava with a high silica content.  When the lava/ magma reaches lower pressure and the gasses come out of the lava what do you think will happen?  acknowledge each idea suggested.
  • Add 1 teaspoon of bicarb quickly to each of the volcanoes and stand back…
Students will see the lava rises as the bubbles attempt to escape.  They will also see that with the very viscous lava, the lava is pushed up much more slowly and forms a dome on top of the cup – even after 10 minutes the lava had not dribbled over the table.  
This was actually done using vinegar mixed with food colour and various amounts of non-toxic PVA glue to simulate the plasticity (ie plastic glue).  Bicarb was then added to cause the gas to be released (carbon dioxide).  
Activity 2:  Exploring Earthquakes – moving, shaking and tsunami making.  
  • Teacher will take students through Google Earth’s USGS earthquake real time overlay http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/catalogs/eqs7day-age.kmz from  http://earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/kml.php
  • Students will see and acknowledge earthquakes, particularly the larger ones, occur mostly at or just near plate boundaries
  • What is MAGNITUDE? listed on each of the earthquake dots.   You will see on each of the dot’s link to the USGS website a reference to the tsunami risk – what is a tsunami?
  • The Magnitude is a number that characterizes the relative size of an earthquake. Magnitude is based on measurement of the maximum motion recorded by a seismograph – a device used to measure seismic waves (which you will learn about in the next soon).  Why do you think that some earthquakes cause major destruction to buildings while others of the same magnitude, in different places, do not?  It could be the strength of buildings, height of buildings, material the buildings are made out of, type of soil perhaps?   Today we are going to make a shake table to simulate an earthquake and you are going to design and investigation to see if soil types or building heights/shapes make a difference to the damage caused by an earthquake.
  • Take students through how to make their shake table, buildings and how to prepare soil types for testing.  Remind students that they will need to have a control group and a test group for each investigation – the control group would be the bedrock example where houses are placed on a play dough filled tray.
When I saw this demonstration on a website I just had to include it in the unit.  Not only is it fun, it really gets the point across that earthquake destruction will depend on more than just the magnitude of the earthquake – at the end of this lesson you could discuss building codes, earthquake friendly buildings and methods used by builders and structural engineers to secure buildings in sandy soils.  http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/CE_p023.shtml see here for a clip on how to set up the shake table, how to simulate different soil types and buildings.  Rather than use this as a recipe demonstration I would turn it into a student led investigation – providing students with different soil types to test (simulated soil types) and materials to construct their buildings (sugar cubes and peanut butter (sunflower nut butter can be used for peanut free schools)).  
  • Students will be instructed to design an investigation to determine if soil types, building height or construction have an impact on damage caused by earthquakes using an earthquake simulation (the process or the earthquake simulation will be demonstrated prior to letting students loose on their investigative design.  Students will work in teacher allocated groups of 3 for this investigation and students can run their test several times using different materials (providing they use fair testing practices for each run).  Students will fill in a fair test pro-forma – i.e.

What is the question?


What is the independent variable (what are you going to change?)

What is the dependent variable (what are you going to measure?)

What are the other variables (that need to be kept the same?)

What is your hypothesis? (e.g. if the independent variable is changed this way then the dependent variable will change this way, providing other variables are kept the same.

Draw a diagram of your investigation


What are your results:


How can you represent your data?


What do your results mean?


How would you improve on your investigation?


Environmental Engineering Science Project how to assemble the shake table

Constructing the shake table – each class will construct one of these

The soil types will be pre-prepared as follows…

Environmental Engineering Science Project prepared trays hold models of four different soil types

Bedrock is made from playdough

Gravel is made from Norganic Crunchola cereal (as a substitute for grape-nuts used in the original demonstration)

The Alluvium is made by mixing 3 cups of Norganic Crunchola with 1 cup of water

The Sand is made by mixing 3 cups of water with 1 1/2 cups of Coles cornflour.  Cornflour is added to the water in small amounts at a time to form the slurry (which has properties much like liquefied soil….)

the trays should be filled to the same level with each of the soil types

Environmental Engineering Science Project four example test houses for the first experimental trial

Buildings made from sugar cubes and peanut butter or sunflower butter.

The trays with soil types are placed on to the shake table tray and houses put on the top – each shake tray should fit 2 soil trays – a control and a test.  The shake table is shaked in a routine way – i.e. say 20 medium shakes.  A student with a stop watch can time when the first building damage occurs and first wall falls down (and any other observations).

I would allocate roles for students in this investigation – the manager, speaker and director.  Manager can gather materials, use the stop watch and control the groups noise levels, speaker can record results and communicate with the teacher if the group needs anything and at the end when discussing results, the director can do the table shaking and ensure other group members are keeping to task.

Sugar cubes can be purchased in bulk from CSR sugar.

  • After the investigation, class will discuss results, the meaning of the results and how this relates to disaster management in developed countries
Tsunami prevention
I found another good demonstration which could be included in this section as an entire class investigation.  It involved creating a tsunami wave and working out structures that may be built to divert or deter the wave to reduce destruction.  Tsunami barriers can be found in Japan, a place which has a major tsunami every 18 months or so, and further research into tsunami prevention is a priority with the Japanese government.  
An example of the investigation is found here…
Each group of students could attempt to design a structure to try to reduce the impact of the wave.  
Even if an investigation is not carried out, it would be useful for students to see this demonstration as a video clip or just as a teacher demonstration so students can visualise the tsunami as being a large wave of water rather than a breaking surf curl which many people apparently think it is… 

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

Gosh I have learned heaps!!!  Geology was always something I was a bit evasive about (being a life scientist)… although I have covered rock types before (which students would have covered more thoroughly in year 8), and could draw the reactions to get from bauxite to aluminium – dug out of my brain from uni inorganic chemistry… I think I could happily go and get a degree in geology now that my interest has been sparked – maybe my enthusiasm is better spent encouraging students to do earth sciences!!!

Going back to my curriculum links mentioned previously…

The National Curriculum: Science / Year 9 / Science Understanding / Earth and space sciences

The theory of plate tectonics explains global patterns of geological activity and continental movement


  • recognising the major plates on a world map
  • modelling sea-floor spreading
  • relating the occurrence of earthquakes and volcanic activity to constructive and destructive plate boundaries
  • considering the role of heat energy and convection currents in the movement of tectonic plates
  • relating the extreme age and stability of a large part of the Australian continent to its plate tectonic history

Code ACSSU180

The Queensland State curriculum Science/ Year 9/ Knowledge and Understanding/ Earth and Beyond

Geological evidence can be interpreted to provide information about past and present events e.g. the earth’s surface is shaped by volcanoes and earthquakes, which can be understood in terms of the theory of plate tectonics.

I can safely say I am thoroughly equipped, knowledge wise, to do an entire unit on plate tectonics – in-fact I could easily do an interdisciplinary unit to bring in physics (volcanoes/earthquakes/tsunamis), maths (ditto), biology (effects of natural disasters on ecosystems and populations – haven’t covered that here but have a major in ecology from my first degree), social science (human impact/ laws and regulations/ economic impact), geography (mountain ranges/ the locations around the ring of fire…) and history (POMPEII… but also looking at the age and development of the earth through the different ages).

In order to ensure I develop teaching strategies to fit into the National Curriculum requirements I investigated the Year 9 science curriculum a little further to find links to other appropriate Science Understandings as well as where the understandings could link with Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills.  See my notes in red on ideas.

From:  http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Science/Curriculum/F-10

Year 9 Content Descriptions

Science Understanding

Earth and space sciences

1. The theory of plate tectonics explains global patterns of geological activity and continental movement (ACSSU180). Obviously, the main unit focus – the full description of this Science Understanding can be seen above.  This topic lends itself well to be the focus of an inquiry-based learning unit using a 5Es format.    Pedagogical content will be developed to allow students to gain a deep understanding of this subject.  Students would already have covered rock types in year 8 which will be connected to this unit when looking at the earth’s crust, seismic and volcanic activity.  Students would have some experience learning about sudden geological changes in year 6 “Sudden geological changes or extreme weather conditions can affect Earth’s surface (ACSSU096)”.  In ACSSU096 students would have learned about volcanoes, tsunamis and/or earthquakes and this will be used as an engage tool and as a starting point to assess students’ alternate conceptions.  

Physical sciences

1. Forms of energy can be transferred in a variety of ways through different mediums (ACSSU182)  There is opportunity to connect energy transfer with tectonics in a variety of places – including convection currents, seismic waves and tsunamis.  Tectonics would be a fantastic unit to do before a unit where energy transfer is covered more thoroughly (understanding real world applications of energy transfer before they learn the details).  Students already have some experience in year 8 with energy forms.  

Science as a Human Endeavour

Nature and development of science

  1. Scientific understanding, including models andtheories, are contestable and are refined over time through a process of review by the scientific community (ACSHE157)
  2. Advances in scientific understanding often rely on developments in technology and technological advances are often linked to scientific discoveries(ACSHE158)
    Both of these points fit in well to the development of tectonic plate theory – so will be addressed in the unit.  It will be important, when mentioning Weneger’s ideas, to emphasis HIS MECHANISMS proposed for continental drift were not right (to avoid student confusion…) – even though he was right about the continents moving (although, more accurately, it is plates which the continents are part of which move).  Technological advancements leading to knowledge of tectonics include 1950s sonar equipment, the development and world placement of seismic readers, and of course, most recently, GPS satellites.  

Use and influence of science

  1. People can use scientific knowledge to evaluate whether they should accept claims, explanations or predictions (ACSHE160)
    Maybe we can use some of the ridiculous claims in newspapers about the state of our fault lines as an example of how students can apply their scientific knowledge to accept or reject claims (like the one mentioned in the Earthquakes post).  Geologists, in the past, also used their scientific knowledge to reject Weneger’s ideas about the mechanism of continental drift- science did not support his theory.  
  2. Advances in science and emerging sciences and technologies can significantly affect people’s lives, including generating new career opportunities (ACSHE161)  This we will see along the way when talking about volcanologists, geologists, seismologists… And also how new technology, like tsunami monitoring devices, can help to warn people of tsunamis and save their lives.  
  3. The values and needs of contemporary society can influence the focus of scientific research (ACSHE228) A good example of this is researching Australia’s fault lines and geology to help develop mechanisms for predicting areas most likely to be effected by earthquakes and tsunamis.  Researching our geology can help to guide the development of building codes and warning strategies to allow people in higher risk areas to live more safely (as influenced by the Newcastle earthquake of 1989).  A further example is in Japan – because Japan is on a fault and is, therefore, an area of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes – the majority of scientific research money in Japan is spent on earthquake and tsumami research.  

Science Inquiry Skills

Questioning and predicting

  1. Formulate questions or hypotheses that can be investigated scientifically (ACSIS164) It would perhaps be good to do an investigation into different soil types in an earthquake and how this could affect the stability of structures/ buildings/ roads 

Planning and conducting

  1. Plan, select and use appropriate investigationmethods, including field work and laboratory experimentation, to collect reliable data; assess risk and address ethical issues associated with these methods (ACSIS165)  See above – perhaps an investigation into different types of soils and earthquake impacts 
  2. Select and use appropriate equipment, including digital technologies, to systematically and accurately collect and record data (ACSIS166) See above investigation – tabulate data from investigation 

Processing and analysing data and information

  1. Analyse patterns and trends in data, including describing relationships between variables and identifying inconsistencies (ACSIS169)
  2. Use knowledge of scientific concepts to draw conclusions that are consistent with evidence (ACSIS170) This would be done in the investigation above, but also from questions given throughout the unit and recorded in log books.  


  1. Evaluate conclusions, including identifying sources of uncertainty and possible alternative explanations, and describe specific ways to improve the quality of the data (ACSIS171) Investigation above


  1. Communicate scientific ideas and information for a particular purpose, including constructing evidence-based arguments and using appropriate scientific language, conventions and representations (ACSIS174) This will be evident at many points through the unit during class discussions, log book?, formative and summative assessment opportunities.  

The science achievement standard (from Australian National Curriculum website http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/Year9)

(appropriate parts in black)

By the end of Year 9, students use their knowledge to pose different types of questions that can be investigated using a range of inquiry skills. They apply their knowledge of science to explain phenomena in the environment and their own lives and describe how knowledge has developed through the work of scientists. They plan experimental procedures which include the accurate control and measurement of variables. They identify inconsistencies in results and suggest reasons for uncertainty in data. They use scientific language and representations when communicating their results and ideas.

Students use knowledge of body systems to explain how complex organisms respond to external changes. They use knowledge of interrelationships to describe how changes affect ecosystems. They explain geological features and events in terms of geological processes and timescales. They describe the structure of atoms and explain chemical changes in terms of the behaviour of atoms. They describe a range of chemical reactions and explain their importance. They compare, in qualitative terms, how two different forms of energy can be transferred. They describe interrelationships between science and technology and give examples of developments in science that have affected society.​

Looking further at Queensland state curriculum from the Queensland Studies Authority website http://www.qsa.qld.edu.au/downloads/early_middle/qcar_el_science_yr9.pdf.  Knowledge and Understanding in the Essential Learnings is also guided by the Ways of working (WoW).

Ways of working 

Students are able to:

•             identify problems and issues, formulate scientific questions and design investigations Earthquake investigation – see above 

•             plan investigations guided by scientific concepts and design and carry out fair tests Earthquake investigation 

•             research and analyse data, information and evidence Various points in explain/evaluate phase 

•             evaluate data, information and evidence to identify connections, construct arguments and link results to theory This could take the form of asking why volcanoes and earthquakes occur more often around plate boundaries.  Or picking a location and asking students to predict what geological activities would be common in that place given where it is situated in regards to types of plate boundaries.  

•             select and use scientific equipment and technologies to enhance the reliability and accuracy of data collected in investigations Perhaps this could be part of seismic reading investigations… 

•             conduct and apply safety audits and identify and manage risks could write that into an investigation…

•             draw conclusions that summarise and explain patterns, and that are consistent with the data and respond to the question analysis of data from investigation

•             communicate scientific ideas, explanations, conclusions, decisions and data, using scientific argument and terminology, in appropriate formats formative and summative assessment pieces 

•             reflect on different perspectives and evaluate the influence of people’s values and culture on the applications of science Australian indigenous people, along with many indigenous people from other nations, have religious associations with mountains and volcanoes and have developed rituals and superstitions to help live in harmony with these sacred places.  Australian indigenous people have developed stories to explain earthquakes and geological formations.  I think it would be worth having a local indigenous person give a talk on their perspectives of the Tweed Volcanic region during the course of this unit – even in the final class of the Evaluate phase perhaps when students are reflecting on the unit.  

•             reflect on learning, apply new understandings and justify future applications.  This would mainly be done in the elaborate/ evaluate phase of a 5Es unit – although may form part of summative assessment, and would to some degree be part of the reflection at the end of every class or section in this unit.  

Knowledge and understanding

Science as a human endeavour

•              Responsible, ethical and informed decisions about social priorities often require the application of scientific understanding – i.e. Should we live near volcanoes or in areas of high earthquake/ tsunami activity? What can we do to protect people who chose to live near these areas? Perhaps this is best in the explore phase 

Earth and beyond

•              Global patterns of change on earth and in its atmosphere can be predicted and modelled – e.g. Australia is moving north-east due to tectonic plate movement and is in the process of colliding with Asia.  We can predict areas of higher volcanic and seismic activity and potential effects this may have on weather patterns, acid rain, mountain building. 

•              Geological evidence can be interpreted to provide information about past and present events This is the main feature of this unit.  e.g. the earth’s surface is shaped by volcanoes and earthquakes, which can be understood in terms of the theory of plate tectonics.

Energy and change

•              Energy can be transferred from one medium to another see above

•              Transfer of energy can vary according to the medium in which it travels see above

•              Energy is conserved when it is transferred or transformed see above

See National curriculum notes above for links of energy concepts.  

Natural and processed materials

•              Changes in physical properties of substances can be explained using the particle model

This will be looked at during volcanism and convection currents – students would already have some experience in physical properties from previous years.  

This unit is perfectly situated to encourage an interest in Earth Science – offered as an Authority subject in years 11/12 in some schools.  This year 9 unit draws on year 7 Essential Leaning in Earth and Beyond “Changes to the earth occur over varying time periods and can be interpreted using geological evidence” and the year 5 Essential Learning in Earth and Beyond “Changes to the surface of the earth or the atmosphere have identifiable causes, including human and natural activity”.   As mentioned in National Curriculum notes above, these concepts will help to guide ways to determine alternate conceptions in the Engage phase of the unit.


There will be more on assessment later on (see the elaborate and evaluate phase!!!).  In our 5E’s unit planning we did learn it was best to work out what you want the students to know, and how you are going to assess it, before writing the 5E’s.

so… What I want the students to know…

Combining facets of Knowledge & Understanding, Science as a Human Endeavor and Science Inquiry Skills listed above from the Australian National Curriculum, and the Essential Learnings Knowledge and Understanding and Ways of Working from the Queensland State Curriculum (QSA) above…

By the end of this unit I want students to be able to:

  1.  Recognise that a scientific theory is developed and refined over time through rigorous testing
  2.  Recognise the major tectonic plates on a world map
  3.  Recognise different boundary types and their properties (converging, diverging, transform)
  4.  Understand convection currents and their ability to drag lithospheric plates around
  5.  Understand how plate boundary activity leads to sea floor spreading, volcanoes and earthquakes
  6.  Recognise different kinds of volcanoes are due to different kinds of eruptions and the silica composition of the magma is responsible for the explosiveness of the eruption.
  7. Recognise hot spot activity may produce volcanoes and that hot spots stay relatively stationary, in comparison to the moving plates
  8. Recognise scientists’ roles in understanding, assessing and monitoring tectonic activity, the role of structural engineers in developing tsunami breaks and earthquake-safe buildings and how technological advances.
  9. Recognise the technology used in monitoring of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes and how advances in technology have increased our understanding of plate tectonics
  10. Recognise Australia’s tectonic history, including around the Gold Coast, and acknowledge the indigenous perspectives of these events
  11. Understand how seismic waves, liquefaction and tsunamis occur

There is quite a bit of stuff to assess above so I suggest assessment in 2 parts:

Assessment piece – 50%.  Assessment piece 1 could take the form of a presentation.  Students could investigate a particular natural (e.g. Boxing Day earthquake/ tsunami); describe the science behind it and how technology or human intervention may prevent a future event being so devastating.   I would do this as a co-operative learning exercise and allow students to use multimedia or PowerPoint to do their presentation.  This could be done in friendship pairs or in teacher allocated pairs depending on the class.  English as a second language students and special needs students may benefit from the multimedia rather than face-to-face presentation format.  Disasters could be allocated to student groupings so that more complicated events were given to advanced students and students with learning difficulties could be given less complex (but still challenging) events (such as Christchurch earthquake or Newcastle Earthquake).  This assignment would assess a student’s ability to apply their knowledge to a new situation – i.e. describing their natural event in terms of what is happening with the tectonic plates, convection currents etc., right up to how the events are assessed in terms of magnitude and what can be done by humans / technology to reduce impact.  More details on this assessment piece will be put in the Elaborate or Evaluate section of this blog…

Assessment piece 2 – 50%.  For the second assessment, students could be given a choice of either handing in a learning log, completed throughout the course of the unit, or a test in the last class of the unit.  Both means of assessment would be suitable and a teacher may prefer to set one or the other depending on the class.  The learning log could be completed in a provided A4 exercise book or on a student’s laptop (if you have a 1 laptop per student learning environment) as a blog or a wiki.  The learning log would contain notes from the entire unit, a summary/ reflection written by the student at the conclusion of each lesson (homework) and answers to any questions given as homework.  A test, if preferred, would contain questions relating to each of the desired outcomes above.  Learning Logs, particularly when done on computer, can benefit learning disadvantaged and English as a second language students (because they can take their time compiling it) so would be the preferred method of assessment if these students are present in the class.  More details on how this will be assessed will be put in the Evaluate section of this blog …

The log book, regardless of whether it will be used as summative assessment, makes an excellent tool for formative assessment so students log books, blogs or wiki pages will be reviewed throughout the unit.

diagnostic assessment will also be carried out to determine students alternate conceptions, and level of understanding, prior to moving on from a task or activity.


So following my last step of construction of my knowledge I revisited my quiz, which doesn’t look nearly as scary now – actually it looks totally inadequate for a quiz on the subject of plate tectonics…

The quiz, as mentioned previously, came from the Soft School website  http://www.softschools.com/quizzes/science/plate_tectonics/quiz415.html

1. The observation that the continents fit together like puzzle pieces, and may once have been connected, led Alfred Wegener to propose a theory in 1910 called

A: continental plowing

B: continental drift

C: wandering continents

D: shape matching of continents


2. The essence of Wegener’s idea was sound, based on some scientific observations. Which of the following supported his theory?

A: Matching fossil plant remains found on two different continents

B: Matching reptile remains found on two different continents

C: nearly identical sedimentary rock types of same age in widely separated locations

D: all of the above

3. The development of submarine warfare druing World War II created a pressing need to map the ocean floor. This actually led to research on the ocean floor that would help explain the movement of the continents. What tool was used to do this mapping?

A: underwater cameras

B: sonar surveys

C: studies of living things

D: rock sampling

4. Scientists found that the continents were moving apart from each other due to magma rising out of mid-ocean ridges, and they called this

A: sea floor spreading

B: sea floor rising

C: changing sea floor

D: underwater volcanos

5. The Earth’s continents were once connected in one giant continent called

A: Eurasia

B: Indo-Australia

C: Pangaea

D: Pacifica

6. The Earth’s crust is divided into 7 major plates, which include all of the continents. Along which two plates do we see major earthquake activity?

A: Pacific and North/South American

B: Pacific and Eurasian/Indian

C: South American and African

D: A and B both

7. Wegener’s old theory, called sea floor spreading, was found too simplistic because it did not explain how the continents would move. It was replaced by a theory called

A: plate tectonics

B: crustal forces

C: paleomagnetism

D: weather forces

RED ALERT HERE!!!! the concept of sea floor spreading out from the earth splitting was mentioned by Wegener as a possible cause of continental drift – he did not have a theory called sea floor spreading – he wrote about the possibility in one paper and then moved onto other things so I have read… I thought it was Harry Hess, 30 years after the death of Wegener, who proposed sea floor spreading as a mechanism for continental drift and was instrumental in forming tectonic plate theory…

perhaps they should have made the question about his continental drift theory…

8. Plate tectonics is our current theory of how the movement of continental masses relates to the movement of ocean basins. This movement explains many phenomena, such as

A: earthquakes

B: volcanoes

C: weather patterns

D: all of the above

9. Plate margins are places where much activity occurs. Earthquakes occur, for example, along convergent margins, where plates are

A: moving apart

B: sliding past each other

C: colliding

10. Volcanoes occur in similar locations to earthquakes, and are common along plate boundaries. Sixty percent of volcanoes occur surrounding the Pacific Ocean, a location called

A: “the hot zone”

B: “the Ring of Fire”

C: “the Volcano Zone”

11. Plate tectonics can also be the direct cause of forming

A: lakes

B: streams

C: mountains

D: oceans

12. Plate tectonics, or the movement of pieces of Earth’s crust, is thought to be caused by

A: volcanoes

B: earthquakes

C: convection currents in Earth’s mantle

D: hot spots

Theme :               Plate Tectonics Science Quizzes                              Result: 12/12       

Number               Actual   Your Answer(s)

Review – 1           B             B

Review – 2           D             D

Review – 3           B             B

Review – 4           A             A

Review – 5           C             C

Review – 6           D             D

Review – 7           A             A

Review – 8           D             D

Review – 9           C             C

Review – 10         B             B

Review – 11         C             C

Review – 12         C             C


 Now for teaching this stuff to year 9s!!!