Hot Spot Activity

Lunar and Planetary Institute
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Lesson/Lesson Plan , Activity
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.



Hot Spot Activity is a lesson plan that tasks students with calculating the speed and direction of the Pacific Plate using data from the Hawaiian Archipelago.  Students will use computational and graphing skills to search for patterns in the movements of the islands and seamounts. They will then construct a best fit line graph to calculate the plate’s speed. The direction of plate movement will be determined through examination of the map included in the activity. This activity is best undertaken after students have been introduced to the concepts of tectonic plates, hotspots and plate movement. Hot Spot Activity can be completed in 1-2 class periods. More time will be required if teachers create and assign a summative assessment.

Intended Audience

- none -
Educational Level
  • Grade 9
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
Access Restrictions

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

Performance Expectations

MS-ESS2-2 Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth's surface at varying time and spatial scales.

Clarification Statement: Emphasis is on how processes change Earth’s surface at time and spatial scales that can be large (such as slow plate motions or the uplift of large mountain ranges) or small (such as rapid landslides or microscopic geochemical reactions), and how many geoscience processes (such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and meteor impacts) usually behave gradually but are punctuated by catastrophic events. Examples of geoscience processes include surface weathering and deposition by the movements of water, ice, and wind. Emphasis is on geoscience processes that shape local geographic features, where appropriate.

Assessment Boundary: none

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
The primary focus of Hot Spot Activity is on calculating the speed and direction of the Pacific Plate’s movement, an exercise which incorporates both time and spatial scales. Although students are not being specifically tasked with constructing an explanation, it would be easy to incorporate this portion of the Performance Expectation in the classroom. Using their computations and graphs, along with an analysis of the Hawaiian Archipelago graphic included in the background information, students should be able to explain how geoscience processes, such as plate movement, volcanism and erosion/weathering have led to the formation of the Hawaiian archipelago.

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
In order to achieve success in this activity, students must have a solid foundation in measuring, computing and graphing skills. Some students may want to analyze their data once they have calculated the distances of the islands and outer seamounts and recorded their answers on the chart; however, most middle school students will be confused by the margins of errors associated with the ages and will be unable to make sense of their data. Only after they have completed their graphs, which would eliminate the margin of error, will most students be able to interpret and analyze their data. It should become evident, once the graph and map are compared, that the older seamounts and islands are moving in a northwest direction. Students may need additional support in calculating the speed of movement of the Pacific plate. Since, the approximate answer is noted in the supporting text, teachers should ensure that students are actually using the data from their graph to arrive at an answer. Once the speed of the plate has been calculated, teachers should check for understanding by asking students to calculate how far the plate will move by the time students graduate from high school, celebrate their 40th birthday, etc.

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
Hot Spot Activity tasks students with calculating the speed of the Pacific plate by measuring the map distance of seamounts and islands from the Kilauea hot spot, converting the distances into kilometers and graphing the results. In order to succeed in this task, students will need prior knowledge of plates, their movements and hot spots. Prior to the start of the activity, teachers should ask students to estimate how fast a tectonic plate moves over the course of a year. Discussing their end result and comparing it to their prediction might surprise the class, leading to a more indepth discussion of how these minute movements can lead to dramatic changes over billions of years.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Once all mathematical computations and graphs have been been completed, students should have a relatively easy time recognizing the pattern observed in the single line plot. Students will realize that the older seamounts are farther away from the Kilauea hot spot and that the younger Hawaiian Islands are closer. From this, they should be able to calculate the speed and deduce the direction of the Pacific plate’s movement.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Hot Spot Activity strongly incorporates all three dimensions of the NGSS. In this activity, students graph and analyze data (Practice), and use the relationship between island/seamount age and distance from a hot spot (Crosscutting Concept), to calculate the speed of plate movements. These mathematical manipulations will lead students to an understanding of the Disciplinary Core Idea which describes how small changes over billions of years have led to our present topography and how these changes will continue to reshape our planet into the future.

  • Instructional Supports: Students are engaged in an authentic activity which mirrors how science is practiced in a real world setting. The activity is scientifically accurate and grade appropriate; however, students with below grade level math skills will need support. The activity does not provide any guidance for differentiated learning. At the middle school level, teachers should strategically group students so that struggling students can complete their graphs. Placing students in groups will allow students to discuss the progress of their work with others. Aside from a few questions designated for discussion, the activity provides few opportunities for peer and teacher feedback.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Hot Spot Activity provides background information, maps and charts; however, formative assessments and scoring guidance, in the form of aligned rubrics or scoring guidelines, are not included. At the middle school level, teachers should make periodic checks of student work to see if students are analyzing and interpreting their data correctly. Logical checkpoints include checking map measurements both before and after conversion to kilometers. This means that teachers would need to edit the provided data chart by inserting an additional column for measured distance in centimeters. Once their measurements and calculations have been checked, students should be able graph their work with minimal support. An answer key is not provided but would be easy enough to generate. The activity does contain a few, basic questions for discussion purposes. A summative assessment is not included but teachers might consider, for example, asking students to determine if and when one of the submerged seamounts would reach the Aleutian Islands. Students would need to defend their answer by citing evidence from their graphs and maps.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: There is no technological component to this activity. It is a pen and paper exercise.