Exploring Plate Bloundaries With Seismic Data

Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS)
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Lesson/Lesson Plan
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.



In this exercise, students will learn about the various types of plate boundaries, investigate well-known examples of some of these boundaries using the IRIS Earthquake Browser. Students will then apply what they learned to East Africa to determine the most likely cause of seismicity in this area of the world.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • High School
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

HS-ESS2-3 Develop a model based on evidence of Earth’s interior to describe the cycling of matter by thermal convection.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on both a one-dimensional model of Earth, with radial layers determined by density, and a three-dimensional model, which is controlled by mantle convection and the resulting plate tectonics. Examples of evidence include maps of Earth’s three-dimensional structure obtained from seismic waves, records of the rate of change of Earth’s magnetic field (as constraints on convection in the outer core), and identification of the composition of Earth’s layers from high-pressure laboratory experiments.

Assessment Boundary: none

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this performance expectation.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
There are several points in the lesson that students can Engage in Argument from Evidence to explain how the various tectonic plates are moving. In subduction zones, one plate is sinking into the Earth due to convection and is being recycled. Understanding plate boundaries is a starting point for developing a model of the Earth's interior. This beginning model will help students understand what might be happening at a location in Africa studied in the lesson.

Science and Engineering Practices

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this science and engineering practice.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Students gather evidence about plate boundaries. Questions are provided to students for guidance as they work through and analyze the data from the Earthquake Browser. Students gather data in order to argument from evidence as they explore several plate boundaries that are well known. Students should then be able to present an argument for what is happening in the region of Africa studied in the lesson using the earthquake data they obtain from the Earthquake Browser. Students can be encouraged to present a variety of explanations that are supported by the data. Then argue for the explanation that is best supported by the data.

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
In each plate boundary region that a student studies in the lesson, it should be emphasized that when providing an explanation via Engaging in Argument from Evidence, that a cause for the plate motion should be included in their explanation. The lesson itself does not explicitly show mantle convection, but the various plate motions should imply that mantle convection is occurring. Especially in regard to subducting plates (i.e the plate is sinking into the Earth and getting recycled; if a large area of the Earth's surface is going down something must be coming up to the surface in another location). Subduction can be determined from areas where the depth of the earthquakes increases as you move along the plate boundary.

Crosscutting Concepts

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this crosscutting concept.

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students should see how each of the plate boundary regions studied during the lesson have repeating patterns of motion. This motion is marked by earthquakes. For example, along plate boundaries with a subducting plate, students will see the depth of the earthquakes increase as the distance from the plate boundary increases; along transform and divergent boundaries, students will see that most earthquakes happen near the surface. Students should be able to use the patterns seen in the early regions studied to argue from evidence about what is happening in the final region studied (the East African Rift).

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: If the lesson is modified so that students engage in argument from evidence after each plate boundary region is explored, they should gain an understanding that mantle convection is occurring as a driving factor for plate motion. Through an iterative process of examining data, forming explanations, and making a claim based on evidence, students identify patterns that explain mantle convection as a driving factor for plate motion.

  • Instructional Supports: The lesson engages students in authentic science as they view data and use the data to make sense of phenomena. The lesson provides all the materials needed to complete the lesson by the students (student worksheets, instructions on using the IRIS Earthquake Browser). There is a detailed background information section for the teacher to review. The lesson does not provide information on how to help struggling learners but does provide an extension by giving another unknown area to investigate.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Student progress can be monitored throughout the lesson by reviewing the student worksheets. Adding Engaging in Argument from Evidence after each plate boundary region is explored will allow the teacher to monitor student understanding of plate motion. Their final assessment is determining what is happening in Africa, however there are no suggestion as to how to assess the final product.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: This lesson uses easily accessed online web browser based applications. The lesson supplies additional information as to how to use the browser and what the different aspects of the browser do.