Plate Tectonics - PHET

Heather Houlton (lead designer}, Noah Podolefsky (lead designer, interviewer), Jonathan Olson (developer), Kathy Perkins, Suzy Loper, Kevin Beals, Lauren Brodsky, Phaela Peck, Kat Quigley, Emily Moore (interviewer)
Type Category
Instructional Materials
Numerical/Computer Model , Interactive 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.


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When clicking on "View this Resource", it takes you to a sketchy website, called Texas


Plate Tectonics is an interactive simulation in which users design scenarios involving plate interactions and observe the results over time. The simulation consists of two screens.  In the first, entitled Crust, students can investigate the physical characteristics of temperature and density for either oceanic or continental crusts.  In the second screen, entitled Plate Motion, students will select the crusts and plate boundaries for each run. Students can then select either manual or automatic mode.  In order to access any of the teacher resources, educators must create a free account. Working with the simulation would take one classroom period of 45 - 60 minutes; the construction of an explanation for the observed phenomenon would take an additional class period. Plate Tectonics runs on a Windows platform and requires the latest version of Java.

Intended Audience

Educator and learner
Educational Level
  • Grade 9
  • Middle School
  • Grade 8
  • Grade 7
  • Grade 6
Access Restrictions

Free access with user action - The right to view and/or download material without financial barriers but users are required to register or experience some other low-barrier to use.

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 appears to be designed to build towards this performance expectation, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Performance Expectation
Plate Tectonics, through its interactive screens, provides students an opportunity to explore and gather the information necessary to construct explanations for how plate interactions have changed Earth’s surface over time. Students can investigate the physical properties of oceanic and continental plates, as well as the results of convergent, divergent and transform plate movements. Since the sole purpose of the simulation is to provide the information necessary to construct explanations, teachers should require students to write detailed accounts, with accompanying illustrations, for each scenario in their lab notebooks. Later, students can use these summaries as supporting evidence in their narratives. In order to achieve the Performance Expectation, teachers will need to create the writing prompts for students to use when they construct their explanations. The use of the simulation is not intuitive; teachers might want to utilize several of the teacher submitted activities as models for classroom lessons. In particular, the lesson by Cesar Duran provides step-by-step instructions for using the simulation. Teachers should note one omission in the simulation. In the continental/continental collision scenario, the simulation begins with the collision of the two continental plates; there is no reference to the seafloor subduction and trench collapse that occurs prior to the collision.

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 Plate Tectonics, students create scenarios to investigate plate movements. When using the computer simulation, students select both the types of crust (oceanic and/or continental) and the type of plate movement (divergent, convergent or transform). Should time be a factor in the classroom, teachers may want students to brainstorm the different scenarios and then divide up the work. Once the scenarios are completed, students could share their results with the rest of the class. In this way, individual students would have more information to use in constructing their explanations.

This resource appears to be designed to build towards this science and engineering practice, though the resource developer has not explicitly stated so.

Comments about Including the Science and Engineering Practice
Through the use of this interactive simulation, students will be able to gather the evidence necessary to explain the science behind plate movements. In order to fully incorporate the practice, teachers will need to design the actual writing prompts for students to use when constructing their explanations. For example, teachers may opt to create an open-ended prompt to challenge students to explain interactions between oceanic and continental crusts or they could choose to adapt the more structured worksheets submitted by other educators, found under Teacher-Submitted Activities. Two resources are particularly useful. The resource contributed by Cesar Duran provides detailed instructions on using the simulation and includes questions that direct student attention to important details in the simulation. Jamie Schoenberger’s lab sheet with fill in charts and questions provides a structure for students to use when organizing their observations.

Disciplinary Core Ideas

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

Comments about Including the Disciplinary Core Idea
Plate Tectonics provides students an opportunity to investigate plate movements on a scale and time frame understandable to middle school students. Please note that the pace of the simulation is deliberate; students should be advised to wait until each scenario is completed in order to gain the most information from each plate interaction.

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 creators of Plate Tectonics have included a Time Elapsed box in the upper right corner of the simulation’s Plate Motion screen. This feature will help students gain an appreciation for the time scale involved in plate movements. Teachers should direct student attention to this box during the simulations, but should caution students that these numbers are approximations and do not apply to any specific plate interaction.

Resource Quality

  • Alignment to the Dimensions of the NGSS: In Plate Tectonics, students design scenarios that replicate plate interactions of oceanic and continental crusts. The simulations support students in making sense of plate movements while providing the evidence and information necessary when constructing explanations of this phenomenon. In order to be successful, students must utilize the Practice of Using Models to gather information on the Disciplinary Core Idea of Earth’s Systems while taking into consideration the Cross Cutting Concept of Scale, Proportion and Quantity. Since the simulation does not task students with constructing an explanation, teachers will need to create the writing prompts necessary to achieve the Performance Expectation. Plate Tectonics contains grade appropriate information for middle school students.

  • Instructional Supports: Plate Tectonics uses scientifically accurate and grade‐appropriate scientific information to support students in their investigation of the physical characteristics of plates and their movements. The simulation is engaging and provides students with relevant phenomena to make sense of the Disciplinary Core Idea. There is limited opportunity within the simulation for students to discuss their understanding of the concepts and to receive feedback. The teacher submitted worksheets do not lend themselves to in depth discussion but are valuable as a tool for students to use in recording their observations. The activity does not provide any suggestions on differentiation.

  • Monitoring Student Progress: The creators do not include ways to assess student progress; however, teachers could monitor the existence of three dimensional learning through anecdotal observations during student use of the simulation, monitoring student notebooks, and reviewing the responses to teacher created writing prompts. Several educators have submitted activities which can be found under the “For Teachers” tab located under the download button. Several of these activities have been written specifically for the middle school student and include both scenarios and questions for students to investigate. Formative assessments, aligned rubrics and scoring guidance are not provided.

  • Quality of Technological Interactivity: Students select both the type of plate composition (oceanic versus continental) and plate interaction (divergent, convergent or transform); however, once these parameters are set, students passively view the resulting plate movement.