6 Plate Tectonics Activities for Students

Ginelle Testa

Whether you're a new educator teaching students about plate tectonics for the first time or you're a seasoned teacher looking for further resources, we've got six engaging activities for you to use in your classroom. These activities include three virtual labs and three hands-on labs that will help your students delve deeper into the fascinating world of plate tectonics.

Plate tectonics is a captivating topic for teachers to teach because it not only helps students understand Earth's dynamic nature but also allows them to develop critical thinking skills, explore the interconnections of Earth's systems, and cultivate a sense of wonder for the natural world.

Figure 1: Satellite data showing the current direction and rate of movement for all major tectonic plates.

Let's explore these six exciting activities that will bring plate tectonics to life in your classroom!

Plate Tectonics Classroom Activities

1. Virtual lab: Drivers of Plate Tectonics: Replicate Earth’s convection currents 

Tectonic plates are always moving beneath us! In Labster's simulation, students will investigate the process of convection, learn what drives the movement of tectonic plates, and perform an experiment with an extremely hot lava sample. Using the knowledge gained from the lab experiments, students will build a futuristic holographic model of Earth to determine the direction of the flow of convection currents within the mantle. Do you think they can determine what drives the movement of tectonic plates?

Preview of Convection experiment with lava simulation.

2. Hands-on lab: Rift Valley Exploration Project

Students create physical models of the Great Rift Valley using materials like clay, cardboard, and paint. They should aim to accurately represent key geographical features such as mountains, valleys, lakes, and volcanic areas. This hands-on activity promotes understanding of the Rift Valley's topography.

3. Virtual lab: Plate Tectonics: Boundaries and crustal features 

Explore real-world, iconic landforms created by different boundaries between tectonic plates in Labster. Determine if a plate boundary is convergent, divergent, or transform, and learn how continental and oceanic crust can influence the type of landform created. Students will even dive underwater in a submarine to collect samples of crustal rocks for analysis and return to the lab to construct each type of plate boundary and explore the landforms they create.

Preview of BOT Screenshot 4 simulation.

4. Hands-on lab: Plates Jigsaw Puzzle 

This activity allows students to assemble cut-up pieces of the plate boundary map. By putting the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle, students can learn and remember the names of the current tectonic plates on Earth. This activity promotes spatial awareness, critical thinking, and teamwork. It also helps students develop a deeper understanding of plate tectonics through hands-on manipulation and analysis of the plates. 

5. Virtual lab: Timescales of Change: Natural climate change factors

Go in a spaceship via Labster to explore the drivers of natural climatic variations during the Earth’s long-ago past. Learn about the natural factors which can change the climate on Earth, and analyze the timescales and geographical extent of their effects. Journey through 250 million years of plate tectonic activity to learn how mountains, ocean currents, and the supercontinent Pangaea influenced Earth’s climate.

Preview of CYO screenshot 3 simulation.

6. Hands-on lab: Tracking Plate Boundaries

Using a world map, have students identify and label major tectonic plate boundaries. They can research and mark the locations of specific boundaries, such as the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the San Andreas Fault. Additionally, they can analyze the geological features associated with each boundary and discuss the types of plate interactions occurring.

Final thoughts

Plate tectonic activities provide students with a fascinating window into the dynamic and ever-changing nature of our planet. Students gain a deeper understanding of geological processes such as continental drift, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes by studying the movement and interactions of tectonic plates. 

Engaging in hands-on activities, such as creating model plate boundaries or using Labster's virtual labs to explore real-world examples, allows students to actively participate in their learning and reinforces key concepts. 

By fostering curiosity and critical thinking skills, plate tectonic activities empower students to become stewards of the Earth and inspire a lifelong appreciation for the intricate workings of our planet. 

Try our free 30-day All Access Educator's Pass today and teach with theTectonic Plates simulations alongside 300+ other virtual labs!

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