Teacher Resources

Plate Tectonics in the Curriculum

The application of the National Science Education Standards for establishing curriculum benchmarks relating to the theory of plate tectonics relied on the structure and sequence from Benchmarks for Science Literacy: Project 2061.

 The history of the rise of the theory of plate tectonics shows that acceptance of a theory depends on its explanatory power and the weight of evidence that supports it.  The modern theory of plate tectonics makes sense of a large and diverse array of phenomena relating to the earth’s surface and is now considered the unifying principle in geology.   In a sense, plate tectonics does for geology what evolution does for biology.

 The theory of continental drift should be introduced following the acquisition of basic descriptive knowledge about the Earth’s surface: the shapes and location of continents, ocean basins, the nature and location of earthquakes and volcanoes, and their distribution.

 The following would be a useful list of curriculum benchmarks appropriate for students in the elementary grades through high school for the introduction of the theory of plate tectonics:

Elementary and Middle School

  • Predictions made using patterns
  • Appropriate instruments selected and use for making quantitative observations
  • Data collected, recorded, and reported using appropriate graphical representations
  • Basic structure of the Earth’s interior
  • General worldwide distribution of earthquakes and volcanoes
  • Geological characteristics of the oceans, including continental shelf, slope, and mid-ocean ridges
  • Rock cycle, including the identification of rock types
  • Relative and absolute geologic dating
  • Earth history and fossil evidence
  • Scientific viewpoint constructed and defended
  • Evidence required to evaluate hypothesis and explanations
  • Introduction of the theory of plate tectonics
  • Magnetic reversals and seafloor spreading
  • Plate boundary characteristics

High School

The following supports the cumulative application of the elementary and middle school knowledge base.

  • Effects of density difference and energy transfer
  • Intrusive and extrusive igneous rocks
  • Magnetic reversals and seafloor spreading
  • Radioactive decay and absolute geological dating
  • Tectonic processes of subduction, rifting, seafloor spreading, and continental collisions
  • Recent advances in techniques of earthquake prediction

Time lapse photo of instruments measuring ground motion along San Andreas Fault.

Curriculum Application

This electronic field trip, “Our Changing Continent: An Introduction to Plate Tectonics,” is designed to offer students in grades 4-9 an introduction to the single most important concept in geology – the theory of plate tectonics.   This theory is surprising new, having been applied only in the last 45 years based on the concepts proposed by Alfred Wegener at the turn of the last century.  Science caught up with Wegener’s vision and now your class can have as general or as specific an introduction as you want to design.

Here are some suggested thoughts on a topic schedule prior to viewing.

Day One
What Is a Theory?
Developing the Theory of Plate Tectonics

Day Two
Inside the Earth
Magnetic Reversals and Seafloor Spreading

Day Three
Earthquakes and Volcanoes

Day Four
What Is a Tectonic Plate?
   -Divergent plate boundaries
-Convergent plate boundaries

Day Five
Transform Plate Boundaries
Plate Boundary Zones

Day Six

Day Seven
The North American Continent
-Passive continental margin
-Active continental margin

Day Eight
Plate Tectonics and People 

Day Nine
View the program at noon ET on April 2, 2003

Day Ten
Submit final evaluation of “Our Changing Continent: An Introduction to Plate Tectonics”


Web Links

Take some time to explore this outstanding site with excellent animation of the Earth's tectonic history.

 A site dedicated to the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth (SAFOD) offering students a chance to witness exciting new science as an international team seeks to understand the nature of faults.

One click to a world of information on plate tectonics.

A neat little quiz on tectonic basics.

Interactive maps, glossary, word searches, self-tests, and much more.

More links to tectonics and web resources.

Developing and implementing a web quest with templates for construction.

Background information for learning more about web quests.

Looking for some cool ideas for your class or classroom?

A comprehensive list of science fair and earth science oriented activities and activities.

Computer animation and much more on earthquakes, tsunamis, and more.

Using an ERIC search for lesson plans, earth science activities etc.

Bill Nye the “Science Guy” has more than great ideas and activities.

Great links for the inquiring earth science student and class.

Extreme Earth Science sites – the ultimate in online science experiences.

Great site for secondary level earth science students and focuses on the most recent NSF funded scientific studies.

A consortium of science museums working with educators to bring the latest science to classes.

A science site for families.

The Science Junction is a cyber community for teachers, students and researchers.

Great lesson plans for earth science topics grades 6-8.

A well compiled list of sites for students in the area of science.

Another great site for earth science and general science resources for teachers.

The Commonwealth of Knowledge constructed to support the Virginia State Standards of Learning offering a great array of lessons and more.

Geological time lines and geological dating – imperative information for the budding earth science student.

High quality standards based Internet content and k12 professional development.

An extremely useful site for teachers to enhance student achievement through the use of technology.



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