Plate Tectonics Simulation

Contributor
PhET Interactive Simulation; University of Colorado, Boulder
Type Category
Instructional Materials Assessment Materials
Types
Simulation , Interactive Simulation
Note
This resource, vetted by NSTA curators, is provided to teachers along with suggested modifications to make it more in line with the vision of the NGSS. While not considered to be “fully aligned,” the resources and expert recommendations provide teachers with concrete examples and expert guidance using the EQuIP rubric to adapted existing resources. Read more here.

Reviews

Description

This is a simple to use Java based simulation from PhET, University of Boulder Colorado. In this simulation the learner can manipulate several variables related to the crust and then run experiments to produce data consistent with data from actual phenomena. This resource can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. The interactive simulation offers the user the ability to manipulate the types of plates, the direction of movement, temperature, and thickness. Further, the user can accelerate time to test different types of plate-to-plate interactions. Further, this simulation could be used as an evidence collection component of an assessment.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Middle School
  • High School
Language
English
Access Restrictions

Free access - The right to view and/or download material without financial, registration, or excessive advertising barriers.

Performance Expectations

HS-ESS2-1 Develop a model to illustrate how Earth’s internal and surface processes operate at different spatial and temporal scales to form continental and ocean-floor features.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on how the appearance of land features (such as mountains, valleys, and plateaus) and sea-floor features (such as trenches, ridges, and seamounts) are a result of both constructive forces (such as volcanism, tectonic uplift, and orogeny) and destructive mechanisms (such as weathering, mass wasting, and coastal erosion).

Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include memorization of the details of the formation of specific geographic features of Earth’s surface.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The learner has the ability to manipulate the simulation to develop their own unique model of plate motion. This is seen via a represented cross-section of the crust and upper mantle. The simulation also represents common resulting land and ocean-floor features that identify the movement of plates (volcanoes, trenches, etc.). Target the Performance Expectation with explicit discussions about the how the model can be used to describe different temporal scales and how the different temporal scales result in observable continental and ocean-floor features. Further, explicit student discussions about the spatial orientation of the interactive simulation could prove valuable in addressing the Performance Expectation.

HS-ESS1-5 Evaluate evidence of the past and current movements of continental and oceanic crust and the theory of plate tectonics to explain the ages of crustal rocks.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on the ability of plate tectonics to explain the ages of crustal rocks. Examples include evidence of the ages oceanic crust increasing with distance from mid-ocean ridges (a result of plate spreading) and the ages of North American continental crust increasing with distance away from a central ancient core (a result of past plate interactions).

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The learner should be asked to focus attention to the temporal scale in the simulation and note that past events are inferred from current events, surface features, and the changing positions of the plates. These concepts need to be made explicit in classroom practice through discussion and student models.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
While the learner would be using a model based on evidence to illustrate the relationships among plates, plate motion, surface and ocean-floor features, etc. the explicit discussion of using models for both evidence generation and theoretical testing is not inherent to the simulation. This practice of models development and use can be made explicit in the classroom by asking students to compare the models they generate as a result of the simulation, and then using them to explain or predict the continental or ocean-floor features that should find in a described area. For example, "use your model to describe the features that would result from a continental plate and continental plate interaction. Then, use Google Earth to examine the physical features of the Himalayan Mountains.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
While the simulation does show common continental and ocean-floor features that result form plate interactions, they are not explicitly highlighted in the simulation. Students may miss the nuances of the features or the cause of their formation. To address this and target the Performance Expectation, call student attention to the features and the cause of their formation. A simple model of "Feature, inferred cause/plate interaction, and characteristics of the feature" could be fruitful. Further, to address the concept of distribution of rocks and minerals within Earth's crust, you could ask students to describe the types of rocks that would result from the interactions and why. Pushing them to recognize that Plate Tectonics Theory is useful in making sense of the distribution of rocks and minerals.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
The age of the crustal rocks is not explicit in the simulation, but there is an "Elapsed Time" tool that students can use to record time changes. Using this and student observations, consider having an explicit discussion about the inferences you could make about the ages of the rocks. For example, "Notice that the continental crust, when interacting with oceanic crust, is not being sub ducted and melted in a convergent plate boundary. What can you infer about the age of the continental crust in this location? What can you infer about the age of the oceanic crust in this area? What evidence affords your inference claim?"

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this crosscutting concept, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Noting that the "system" in reference for this particular Crosscutting Concept is Plate Tectonics, it is important for students to understand the role models and simulations play in our ability to investigate and explain large-sized, complex, and extremely large timeframe phenomena. To address this in the classroom you could use an analogy analysis technique of comparing the analog (simulation) to the target (Plate Tectonics). For example, asking students, "How is this simulation an appropriate model for Plate Tectonics? Where does this model fail at representing Plate Tectonics (in many ways, but chiefly in scales of time and size)? Does the benefit of the simulation outweigh the failures… is it still usable?" Finally, to directly target the Crosscutting Concept, ask students, "Is it appropriate to use simulations (models) such as this to understand and make predictions about plate tectonics? Explain."

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: While mostly implicit, the three Dimensions of the NGSS can be made very explicit in the classroom using a quality teaching tool such as this simulation.

  • Instructional Supports: The simulation does not include any instructional support materials. However, the site does have a place for teachers to upload and share lessons designed to use the simulation.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The resource doesn’t provide any mechanism for monitoring student progress or teacher-student feedback within the simulation. However, this could be accomplished in the classroom via science notebooks, self-evaluation tools, and teacher monitoring.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This is an interactive simulation where students have the ability to manipulate variables within the system and observe resulting changes. Further, the simulation interface is appropriate for all levels of learners and is very intuitive to use. Additionally, the host offers excellent technical support. Note: this simulation currently runs on Java 6 so some machines may need to downgrade Java to run the simulation. Based upon site information, simulations are being redeveloped in HTML 5.