Plate Tectonics Unit Plan

Earthquakes and volcanoes are naturally fascinating and you won’t have any trouble getting students curious about how they occur. You can teach plate tectonics in a low to no prep way and still help build fundamental scientific literacy skills in your students. These are my plate tectonics lesson plans.

When to teach plate tectonics

Plate tectonics is a unit that cycles back into the NGSS curriculum several times – at least twice in elementary school, once in middle school, and again in high school. In middle school, students are expected to be able to use data about fossils, rocks, continental shapes, and seafloor structures as evidence of tectonic plate movement. Logically, this unit fits after relative and absolute dating so students are equipped with the background knowledge they need to understand the evidence of plate tectonics.

Scope and Sequence

All good NGSS lessons include phenomena, inquiry, and discovery.

  1. Start with a map exploration. Given a map of the world, let your students practice map skills and plot the locations of major earthquakes and volcanoes. Let them wonder why these geologic events are clustered in certain areas.
  2. Introduce the concept of Pangaea. Let students know about Alfred Wegener and the evidence that he thought supported his theory of plate tectonics. I do this with an Interactive drag and drop slide show. Let students cut out the continents and try to recreate Pangaea. Have them compare their Pangaea maps with the maps of earthquakes and volcanoes they created and see if they make any connections. We’ll circle back to that map later, but it’s always a good idea to revisit phenomena throughout your unit.
  3. Tell students that Wegener’s theory wasn’t accepted at first. Critics complained that they couldn’t actually see the movement of the continents and offered alternate explanations of the positions of mountain ranges, fossils, and climate features. I like to let students struggle with this for a while – I tell them that critics hypothesized about land bridges spanning the Atlantic Ocean and let them wonder how to prove or disprove something.
  4. Submarine technology made the difference in the acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics. The discovery of the mid-ocean ridge and the ages of rocks on the seafloor made it impossible to ignore Wegener’s theory any more. My plate tectonics lesson plans include the same Interactive drag and drop slide show.
  5. By this point, students are ready to know how plates move. I do a convection currents lab. If your students already know the layers of the earth, they will understand that the lithosphere floats on the asthenosphere. If you model the lithosphere with pieces of sponges, you can float them in water. In class, I put the sponges in a pan of water in a glass baking dish – my lasagna dish works best. I lift the lasagna dish on books so that there is space under it for a can of Sterno. When the Sterno is lit, the water will heat unevenly and the sponges will float away from each other. Even students working asynchronously can complete this lab activity with parental supervision, or you can videotape yourself doing the demonstration.
  6. Another hands on lab activity that’s great to add to your plate tectonics lesson plans is a cake frosting exploration. By now, students know that the lithosphere is broken in to pieces that move on the asthenosphere. If you model the lithosphere with 2 Rice Krispy treats, students can slide the treats on the frosting and explore the three ways that tectonic plates can interact – convergence, divergence, and shearing. Sub one of the Rice Krispy  treats for a graham cracker to model an oceanic plate and students will be able to observe subduction.
  7. Now’s a good time to circle back to the map activity you did at the beginning of your plate tectonics unit. Allow students to make connections between what they observed in the map activity and what they know now.
  8. Practice vocabulary with a magic picture and with Boom cards.

Standards Addressed in this unit:

NGSS MS-ESS2-3 – Analyze and interpret data on the distribution of fossils and rocks, continental shapes, and seafloor structures to provide evidence of the past plate motions.



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