Plate Tectonics

Teachers' Domain/ PBS Learning Media
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Animation/Movie , Informative Text , 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 Plate Tectonics, students are introduced to the theory behind this geophysical phenomenon and investigate the evidence that supports it.  In Part 1, students view Flash interactives and QuickTime videos which delineate the relationship between volcanoes, earthquakes and plate boundaries and discuss the ancient continent of Pangaea.  Students are then allotted time to explore these concepts further by cutting up a map of the continents and trying to recreate Pangaea. The Shorelines and Continental Shelf Boundaries PDF included for this activity may be difficult for middle schoolers to use.  An easier version can be downloaded from the American Museum of Natural History’s Plate Tectonic Puzzle Activity located at: Activity 1 ends with an introduction to the work of Alfred Wegener.  Unfortunately, the video link is broken but students can read about his work at: .

In Part 2, students view additional videos and conduct hands on activities looking for evidence that supports the concepts of plate tectonics and hot spots.  The suggested time for all these activities is 2 class periods; however, in all practicality, teachers should allot an additional 1 to 2 days.

Each resource linked to in Parts 1 and 2 contains a background essay and discussion questions.

Note: The video associated with the Plate Tectonics: An Introduction page contains a misconception in the first half minute.  Tectonic plates do not float on the molten interior of the Earth; rather, the motion of lithospheric plates moving across the ductile, more viscous asthenosphere causes plate tectonics. Teachers should clarify that tectonic plates don’t float because the asthenosphere is not liquid.

Intended Audience

Educational Level
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
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
Throughout this activity, students are engaged in gathering evidence on how plate tectonics has been responsible for the changes in Earth’s topography. Part 2 of the activity particularly emphasizes the importance of evidence gathering. In this portion of the activity, students investigate plate tectonics by viewing a video highlighting Lake Mead, Nevada. In addition, they perform hands on activities which models this process. The idea that periodic magnetic reversals is evidence of the existence of tectonic plates is mentioned in the directions, but there are no videos or readings to support this. Teachers might supplement the activity with these resources on magnetic field reversal: 1. Magnetic Field Reversal: 2. Reversals: Magnetic Flip: 3. Magnetic Evidence for Seafloor Spreading: The activity does not require a final product which summarizes the students’ explanations. Teachers might consider tasking students with the creation of a poster or a PowerPoint/Google Slides presentation which summarizes the evidence they have gathered for the role of tectonic plates on emerging topography.

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
Although the theory of plate tectonics is explained before students investigate the evidence that supports it, students can still be tasked with explaining how the information they have gathered, especially in the hands on activities, supports the theory. The richness of this activity lies in the fact that students are gathering data from both their own experiences in the classroom and from professional videos and animations. Teachers may also want to provide students with copies of the background essays included with each linked resource. Teachers should then design a writing prompt that would require students to combine these different sources of information into one essay that explains the theory of plate tectonics.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

This resource is explicitly designed to build towards this disciplinary core idea.

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
In both Parts 1 and 2 of the activity, students consider how the movement of plates and volcanoes have helped to shape Earth’s topography. Students investigate the functioning of tectonic plates, the relationship between volcanoes, earthquakes and plates and the breakup of Pangaea. In hands on activities, students use two simple models; the first model suggests the relationship between symmetrical rock formations on the floor of the Atlantic and seafloor spreading while the second model explains how hot spot activity and plate movement led to the formation of the Hawaiian Islands.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
The concept of Patterns is basic in understanding the relationship between volcanoes, earthquakes and plate boundaries. In Part 1 of the activity, students view a Flash interactive, Tectonic Plates, Earthquakes, and Volcanoes, which presents a strong visual relating the locations of volcanoes and earthquakes with the location of plate boundaries. Students will also find patterns in the symmetrical rock formations located at diverging plates. The discussion questions provided in this section prod students in the direction of patterns, using this crosscutting concept to form an explanation for the role of tectonic plates in geophysical processes.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: Plate Tectonics is strongly aligned to all three dimensions of NGSS. Students use the Crosscutting Concept of Patterns to provide the scientific evidence necessary in the application of the Practice of Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions. In the case of Plate Tectonics, students are developing an explanation for the Disciplinary Core Idea of how geophysical processes, specifically plate tectonics and seafloor spreading, have helped to shape Earth’s topography. Students construct their explanations after investigating both the locations of volcanoes, earthquakes and plate boundaries and the symmetrical patterns that have been observed on the seafloor. The focus of this activity is on facilitating student understanding. This is achieved in the multiple ways that students can acquire information, such as through the use of videos, essays and hands on activities.

  • Instructional Supports: Plate Tectonics uses scientifically accurate and grade appropriate information in an engaging, authentic experience for middle school students. Part 2, which focuses on the evidence for tectonic plates, reflects the practice of science in the real world. The individual and flash videos linked to the activity (Tectonic Plates, Earthquakes, and Volcanoes, Plate Tectonics: An Introduction, Mountain Maker, Earth Shaker, Plate Tectonics: Further Evidence, Plate Tectonics: Lake Mead, Nevada, Tectonic Plates and Plate Boundaries and Plate Tectonics: The Hawaiian Archipelago) all provide support materials consisting of a background essay and discussion questions. However, only questions that check for understanding are found in the main body of the activity. By using all these questions in the classroom, teachers will provide opportunities for students to express their ideas and receive feedback. Tips on differentiation or support for struggling students are not provided. Likewise, no extension activities have been suggested.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Teachers can check for understanding throughout the unit by utilizing the questions found throughout the activity and supporting materials. In some cases, teachers may want to use them as a basis for class discussions; at other times, teachers may require individual, written answers. Formative assessments, scoring guidelines and rubrics have not been included.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Plate Tectonics lacks interactivity; however, teachers will need at least one computer and projector in the classroom in order to have students view the videos and animations.