Volcanos, Earthquakes, and Plate Boundaries — UNAVCO computer lab model

Ruth Powers, UNAVCO Master Teacher-In-Residence; Becca Walker and Shelley Olds
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Activity , Map , Model , Simulation
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.



This activity gives students a visual representation of how volcanoes and earthquakes are related to plate boundaries and gets students working with real data. This lab also introduces students to the concept of vectors in the form of GPS data showing plate motion. In this interactive website activity, students use UNAVCO's EarthScope Voyager Jr. website in order to observe location data for volcanoes, and location and depth data for earthquakes. A worksheet is provided outlining the use of the GPS tool and a series of questions that students will use to make Relationships Between Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Plate Boundaries in the Western U.S.


Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
  • Middle School
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
This activity has 4 parts. Part one is a the tutorial of the activity using the interactive website. In part two, the students compare the earthquake and volcano locations across the United States. Students can select to be a volcano expert, an earthquake expert or both. Students make comparisons between volcano and earthquake distribution and then the data is plotted by hand on a relief map of the Western United States. Part three examines GPS Vector Data. Students return to the UNAVCO website to add in velocities. Arrows appear as data points on the map for every GPS station and is called a velocity vector. Students will take their relief map from Part two and sketch in the vector arrows to indicate the direction the plate is moving and how fast. Students answer questions about the relationships of the location of the arrows and plate movement. In Part four, students identify the relationships between the locations of volcanoes and earthquakes to their velocity vectors. Students then try to identify where and what type of plate boundaries are located in the Western United States.

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 summarize the relationships they discovered between earthquakes and the location of plate boundaries based on the evidence from the UNAVCO website. Students plot past earthquake and volcano locations on their maps as well as velocity vectors to show the movements (fast or slow) of the tectonic plates over time. This will lead to the discovery of patterns between earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate boundaries.

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
This activity operates in more of real time data. The plotting of the earthquakes and volcanoes is global in size and happened over time and will show past plate movements as well as the expected future tectonic movement of plates relative to the Western United States a world map showing the locations of earthquakes and volcanoes over a global scale is shown in an interactive link in the website listed here, https://ca.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/ess05.sci.ess.earthsys.tectonic/tectonic-plates-earthquakes-and-volcanoes/#.WYFVAVKZP-Y. A global model is not shown on this UNAVCO website. The website below will show real-time earthquake data over a local and global expanse. Students can access the United States Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center at http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/map/ and plot the longitude latitude and depth of earthquakes on a physiographic chart. The plate tectonic plate boundaries emerge gradually from the data making sense of the data.

Crosscutting Concepts

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

Comments about Including the Crosscutting Concept
Students are using images and data to identify patterns of earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate movement and relate those to plate boundaries.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: The three dimensions work together to enable students to make sense of phenomena (plate boundaries). Students observe how the planet’s systems interact (disciplinary core idea) as they are using the crosscutting concept of patterns while they look at earthquake, volcanoes, and vector plots to construct an explanation of the relationship between the patterns and plate boundaries (science and engineering practice).

  • Instructional Supports: Students do engage in a phenomena related to the area in which they live. The instructions and clear “step-by-step” directions make it very easy to follow. The companion worksheet must be printed out for the students from the website and the students must also have access to the UNAVCO website to answer the worksheet questions about the relationship between plate boundaries and other geographic features. However, there are no other teachers supports or suggestions for differentiation.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: Questions and directions for the interactive website are provided to guide students in the analysis of earthquake and volcano distribution. There is no embedded formative assessment. The teacher will have to monitor the tasks students are doing and having discussions with them to determine how they are doing. No scoring guides, rubrics, or suggested answers are provided.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Students will need access to the internet and will need to click on EarthScope Voyager Jr. The direct link is: http://jules.unavco.org/VoyagerJr/EarthScope Students are given a tutorial of how to use the interactive map to overlay the information they need to observe.. A map of North America will load in several seconds and has different features that can be added to a base map such as topography, ocean floor age, and tectonic plates. Students will follow instructions and select the settings they need to answer the questions and construct scientific explanations.