Saturday, April 7, 2012

Plate Tectonics — Putting It All Together

Why does the Earth's surface look the way it does? Why do Africa and South America look like they could fit together, like pieces of a puzzle? How could these pieces fit together? How do we know? What evidence do we have?
Earth's Tectonic Plates

One hundred years ago, plate tectonics was more of a crazy idea than a rock-solid scientific theory that explains why the Earth's surface looks the way it does. Helping students navigate how the theory was assembled bit-by-bit exposes them to both a deeper understanding of geology as well as the oft-messy nature of science itself. Theories are not always well-received when first proposed, and overwhelming evidence is needed for a fanciful idea to become a scientific theory. This is how science works.

In the classroom, we engage in a plate tectonics research map project to better understand how all of the geologic puzzle pieces fit together to complete the plate tectonics picture. Using primary and secondary internet resources, maps, posters, textbooks, and other artifacts, students add layer upon layer of geologic data and evidence onto a world map to see the patterns and mechanisms which work together in plate tectonics theory. In three to five days, students build evidence for the grand theory of geology that took more than half a century to initially develop. On the shoulders of giants we stand...

In the research project, students use the following websites to gain background knowledge about the scientific theory of plate tectonics and gather data for their world maps:
Using these websites and other resources, students layer the following data and information onto a world map:
  • prevalent earthquakes and volcanoes
  • hot spots
  • mid ocean ridges
  • ocean trenches
  • plate boundaries with their direction of movement
  • plate names
Additionally, students are asked to illustrate the three major types of plate boundaries and how they work as well as assemble a Pangaea puzzle onto the back of their map. Finally, students are asked to explain in their own words what the scientific theory of plate tectonics is, how it works, and what evidence we have to support the theory. Along the way, students discover the story of Alfred Wegener—who first proposed the plate tectonics idea—and how he struggled and persevered throughout his short life to develop his ideas (which we fully accept today).

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