Taking the Pulse of Yellowstone’s “Breathing” Volcano: Problem-Based Learning in America’s First National Park

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.


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1 Wrong PE listed

The wrong PE is listed for this lesson.


In this lesson, students will learn about the Yellowstone hotspot. They will analyze ground height data to determine how the magma in the Yellowstone hotspot is moving. Using their analysis of the ground height data, students will engage in argument from evidence to support their decision on where to build a new research center. Students look at past volcanic activity at Mt Saint Helens to predict future eruptions. Students also look at seismicity, hydrothermal activity, and eruptive history of Yellowstone National Park to make their decision.  

Intended Audience

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-ESS2-2 Analyze geoscience data to make the claim that one change to Earth's surface can create feedbacks that cause changes to other Earth systems.

Clarification Statement: Examples should include climate feedbacks, such as how an increase in greenhouse gases causes a rise in global temperatures that melts glacial ice, which reduces the amount of sunlight reflected from Earth's surface, increasing surface temperatures and further reducing the amount of ice. Examples could also be taken from other system interactions, such as how the loss of ground vegetation causes an increase in water runoff and soil erosion; how dammed rivers increase groundwater recharge, decrease sediment transport, and increase coastal erosion; or how the loss of wetlands causes a decrease in local humidity that further reduces the wetland extent.

Assessment Boundary: none

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

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
This activity allows students to analyze geophysics data (GPS height data over time, seismicity, hydrothermal activity, and eruptive history in Yellowstone National Park) to explore how the Yellowstone hotspot is changing over time. The changes that are found in the data will affect where the students choose to build a new research center. These changes may include changes in height, location of water (lakes), and stability of land under the new research center.

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
This activity has students analyzing data (GPS heights over time, seismicity, hydrothermal activity, and eruptive history in Yellowstone National Park) in order to make valid claims based on the currently available data. The data is analyzed to find the best location for a new research center. This area needs to be the most stable location over time.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
When students work through this activity they will analyze GPS height data over time that will allow them to see changes over time that are caused by the movement of magma in the Yellowstone hotspot.The height of various points across the area being studied will rise or fall indicating the motion of magma beneath Yellowstone National Park.

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
The activity has students analyzing GPS data on ground heights over time, seismicity, hydrothermal activity, and eruptive history in Yellowstone National Park. The data will show changes in ground height over time that varies at different locations. Students must base their decision on where to build the new building on the changes (or lack of changes) that they determine from the analysis of the ground changes. This is the end result of the activity. However, a discussion time could be added to reinforce the notion that science deals with constructing explanations of how things change over time. For example, one question might be “how did the inclusion of additional GSP data in the second half of the lesson influence your original decision for the location of the new research center?” Or “How can an increased data set influence the interpretation of this data set?”

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: There is alignment to the 3 dimensions. Students are asked to analyze data (Practice), observe changes over time related to phenomena (Crosscutting Concept and Core Ideas) in order to come up with a solution based on their evidence (Practice). The entire activity is designed to allow students to analyze a data set of ground heights, seismicity, hydrothermal activity, and eruptive history in Yellowstone National Park. While Performance Expectations are listed the inclusion of Next Generation Science Standards is somewhat lacking in the lesson. References to terminology during the lesson would enhance the link to the standards. Examples include: argument from evidence, feedback in earth's systems cause change in other systems, and scientific evidence for change.

  • Instructional Supports: The lesson includes everything you need (both teachers and students) to complete the activity. The teacher guide includes suggestions for advanced students and adaptations for struggling students. While suggestions are given for what students should know at the end of this set of activities, no rubric is provided. Student worksheets and readings are included. I would refer to introductory information based on pre-assessment questions which then gives guidance as to where additional information could be added to aid in student understanding. Yellowstone is an interesting place and students must engage in the 3-dimensions in order to plan the site for a research station. Scientifically accurate information is included other reading that is provided for the teacher to help students understand the topic better. Students are given guidance but they are given opportunities to discuss in small groups and create a final outcome to be presented to the class. Suggestions are given along the way to help struggling learners and how to make extensions for advanced learners.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: At the beginning of the lesson there are pre-assessment questions. The instructions have points along the way where teachers can assess where students are by using guiding questions. Suggestions for further teaching are provided to be sure they have the basic understandings necessary to complete the lesson. The lesson does not include much in the way of explicit monitoring of student progress except the final presentation. The teacher, who is familiar with the activity, could meet with the jigsaw specialty groups before sending them back to share their information with their workgroups. The teacher could also provide discussion periods where the students could engage in argument from evidence as way to gauge their understanding of the lesson to the point.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Students analyze the GPS height data using Excel. Students plot the data in a graph. Google Earth KMZ files are included with the lesson for those teachers/students who wish to explore in more details. Teachers may want to test Google Earth first on school computers and be sure the KMZ files are preloaded. Many schools do not allow changes in programing and someone else must install materials. For classrooms without reliable Internet access, the data can be printed out and given to students.