ONLINE EXTRA: Using Google Earth to Introduce Plate Tectonics

Adam Bennion

An understanding of plate tectonics is critical as a foundation for students as they begin to encounter and experience geologic phenomena. The way students first experience plate tectonics will have an impact on how well they will be able to recall the material and make connections to future material (National Research Council, 2000).

Teachers use various approaches to introduce plate tectonics to students including using analogies (e.g., Nottis, 1999), model-based teaching (Gobert & Buckley, 2000), or more traditional lecture type approaches. The Framework underpinning the Next Generation Science Standards ( recommends using computer simulations as models to understand and investigate aspects of systems, especially those too large or small to be visible (National Research Council, 2012). Google Earth provides a platform that can help students of all ages to model and investigate the results and mechanisms behind plate tectonics.


To start off the activity, I have students discuss a set of pre-lab questions in small groups to begin exploring what prior knowledge they have. The students then share their ideas with the whole class as they discuss the things they will investigate. Within the same groups, I have students open Google Earth on their computers and follow a short set of instructions to turn on the internal filters that will allow them to explore patterns in seismic activity and the location of volcanoes around the globe (link to student activity-sheet:

Model-Based Investigation

Using the student activity-sheet, which includes a map of the globe where students can collect their data, the students will select different layers to display on the globe. Each of these layers highlight different features on the globe (location of earthquakes, see Figure 1, or location of volcanoes, see Figure 2).

Once the students have plotted these locations onto their maps, I have them discuss the patterns they see and think of reasons why these events are not randomly located across the globe. In most cases, students make the connection that this is due to the movement of the plates, but at this point they do not know which direction the plates are moving. They also pick up on the fact that in many cases, volcanoes and earth quakes share the same regions. After this discussion, the students will activate the three layers for each boundary type, and then plot the convergent, divergent, and transform boundaries in different colors (see Figure 3).

In the last part of the investigation, I have the students zoom in on the different boundary types (e.g. oceanic-continental convergent) and describe the features they find there. I also ask the students to hypothesize about the directions the plates are moving so that they can try to make connections between the features they see and the movement of the plates. I end the activity by having the groups share out claims they made supported by the evidence they used to substantiate them. In most classes, the students' claims will be about the mid-oceanic ridge and the locations of volcanoes and converging plate boundaries.

The last page of the student activity sheet includes an image showing the location of porphyry ore deposits as well as our only source of Mo and the major sources of elements like Cu, Au, and Ag. The students are asked to use what they have learned to explain the location of these deposits. This can be used as an exit ticket or a take home question for the students.

Using computer-based applications such as Google Earth allows students to explore geologic phenomena on their own terms. Students are able to visualize data to make claims about why patterns exist and make predictions about possible future events. Activities such as this lay the groundwork to help students have deeper conversations as the class moves on to investigate and discuss other sources of evidence for plate tectonics and the mechanics that drive the motion of the plates.

In my experience with this activity, students enjoy the freedom that Google Earth provides as they investigate geologic concepts. The students are able to manipulate the virtual globe to see features they are interested in and come to their own conclusions or ask their own questions. Some questions students have asked are: why are there volcanoes only on the western side of the American continent? Why aren't the mountains between India and China volcanic? How can the plates move at different rates? Follow up lessons could include other evidence we have that the plates are moving and an investigation of the mechanical forces that drive the movement.

Works Cited

Gobert, J. D., and Buckley, B. C., 2000, Introduction to model-based teaching and learning in science education: International Journal of Science Education, v. 22, p. 891–894.

National Research Council, 2000, How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school: Washington, D.C., National Academies Press.

National Research Council, 2012, A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas, Washington, D.C., National Academies Press.

Nottis, K., 1999, Using analogies to teach plate-tectonics concepts: Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 47, p. 449–454.