Earth's Tectonic Plates: Interactive Model

By Laura Hospitál on Mar 04, 2015

The theory of plate tectonics states that the Earth's crust is made of plates that move slowly toward or away from each other or past each other as they float on the molten rock below.  Earthquakes and volcanoes are the result of the movement of tectonic plates.  Scientists also theorize that continental drift is caused by their movement. 

This interactive model of the Earth's tectonic plates allows students to manipulate the individual plates and mimic the movement of the tectonic plates in relation to each other. 

 

Key terms:

  • Plate tectonics: The scientific theory that the Earth's crust is made up of plates that slowly shift position
  • Convergent boundary:  A boundary between tectonic plates in which the plates are moving toward each other
  • Divergent boundary:  A boundary between tectonic plates in which the plates are moving away from each other
  • Transform boundary:  A boundary between tectonic plates in which the plates are sliding past each other
  • Continental drift:  The theory that the Earth's large landmasses drift because of the movement of the tectonic plates

 

Preparation:

Preparation of tectonic plates:

  1. Make braille labels of the tectonic plates (See attached picture of the tectonic plates.)
  2. Glue the copy of Earth's tectonic plates onto a piece of foam board.
  3. Attach braille labels to the appropriate tectonic plates.
  4. Using a glue gun and glue stick, outline the continents. 
  5. Carefully using a sharp knife or blade, cut out the tectonic plates.

Preparation of molten lava:

  1. Cover the bottom of the tub with about a 1/2" of corn starch, depending on the size of the tub, this will probably take about 2 cups.
  2. Add 10 drops of red food coloring to 1/4 cup water
  3. Add water to corn starch slowly mixing until no more water is absorbed.  The consistency should be thick but no water should be floating on top of the cornstarch.  Mix the cornstarch and water with your hands or a spoon.  This will be a thicker consistency than Oobleck that many are familiar with.  The perfect consistency will allow your hands to slowly sink in to the goo.

Preparation for closing activity:

  1. Print or emboss definitions of convergent boundar, divergent boundar , and transform boundary for each student leaving enough room to cut them out.
  2. Print or emboss the terms convergent boundary, divergent boundary, and transform boundary leaving space to cut each out.  

 

Materials

  • Foam board
  • Image of Earth's tectonic enlarged to an appropriate size (See attached file)
  • Corn starch - 10 oz/ group
  • Water
  • Large tub (See picture)
  • Gloves (optional) - For students who don't wish to touch the goo.
  • Braille label paper
  • Braillewriter
  • Hot glue gun
  • Glue stick

 

Procedure

Picture of two adjacent tectonic plates

  1. This activity should follow instruction on plate tectonics.  Explain to students that in today's activity they will have the opportunity to "float" the tectonic plates and show the various interactions between the tectonic plates.  Review the 3 types of boundaries - transform, convergent and divergent.
  2. Give each group a tub of cornstarch/ water.  Explain to the class that this represents the magma(molten rock) that is found directly under the tectonic plates.  It is this layer that the plates float on.  Please see variations for terms that may be included here for more advanced students.
  3. Students will each take a turn placing their hands on the molten rock.  Ask them what happens? Are they able to move their hands around quickly?  Discuss.  Discuss how this layer of melted rock below the tectonic plates  allows the movement of the plates VERY slowly in the same manner that their hands sunk into the mixture slowly. 
  4. Give each group 1 tectonic plate.  Allow the group to take turns trying to move the plate on the molten lava.  Discuss how slowly it moves and relate this movement to the speed at which tectonic plates move.
  5. Give each group a 2nd tectonic plate which shares a border with the plate the group already has.  Have each member of the group model the motion which occurs at each of the 3 boundaries as the instructor observes.  Discuss as students work.
  6. Wash hands with warm water to remove the goo.  The cornstarch and water mixture should not be thrown down the sink but rather thrown into the garbage so as not to clog up the drain. 
  7. Closure - Matching of terms and definitions.  Give each student slips with the 3 terms and slips with the 3 definitions.  Students will match terms to defintions.  Instructor will use this as an informal assessment and reteach as necessary.  

Variations

  • For middle school students, discussion of the lithosphere and asthenosphere may also be appropriate.  Elementary school students will likely not be taught these terms. 

 

NGSS Standards:

4th grade - Earth's Systems: Processes that shape the Earth: ESS2.B: Plate Tectonics and Large-Scale System Interactions
The locations of mountain ranges, deep ocean trenches, ocean floor structures, earthquakes, and volcanoes occur in patterns. Most earthquakes and volcanoes occur in bands that are often along the boundaries between continents and oceans. Major mountain chains form inside continents or near their edges. Maps can help locate the different land and water features areas of Earth. (4-ESS2-2)
 
Middle School - History of Earth:  Tectonic processes continually generate new ocean sea floor at ridges and destroy old sea floor at trenches. (HS.ESS1.C GBE) (secondary to MS-ESS2-3)
ESS2.B: Plate Tectonics and Large-Scale System Interactions Maps of ancient land and water patterns, based on investigations of rocks and fossils, make clear how Earth’s plates have moved great distances, collided, and spread apart. (MS-ESS2-3)
 

Collage of Earth's tectonic plates


 

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