2002 Denver Annual Meeting (October 27-30, 2002)

Paper No. 26
Presentation Time: 1:30 PM-5:30 PM


WILTON, Joanne1, HENNING, Alison T.2, SAWYER, Dale S.2 and SHIPP, Stephanie2, (1)Trafton Academy, 4711 Mcdermed Drive, Houston, TX 77035, (2)Department of Earth Science, Rice Univ, 6100 Main Street, Houston, TX 77005, dwilton@mindspring.com

We present a plate tectonics exercise designed to encourage students to make observations, analyze data, draw conclusions, and present their results. This activity has been used successfully with a wide variety of students, as well as pre-service and in-service teachers. It is extremely flexible because the basic structure remains the same while the expectations of the students vary according to their age level. The exercise supports the National Science Education Standards by teaching students about the processes of science and “how we know what we know”.

The basis of the exercise is a set of four large world maps that show volcano locations, earthquake epicenters and depths, seafloor age, and elevation, respectively. For any grade level, the main goal of the exercise is to make observations, a vital but often overlooked skill necessary in both science and everyday life. An understanding of plate tectonic processes can then be built upon a firm grasp of the data.

K-3 students examine the data maps in the context of geo-political boundaries, with the elevation map as the visual centerpiece. Students in grades 4-7 begin to learn some plate tectonic concepts, along with geography. This is an ideal age group for encouraging observation because the students typically do not have any prior knowledge of the subject. In grades 8-12, it is critical for teachers to define observations rigorously because the students have often studied the basic concepts of plate tectonics in school. These students may think they comprehend the processes, but they fail to notice that their conceptions are inconsistent with their observations. It is critical for teachers to point out any inconsistencies between the data and students’ preconceptions. College freshman should be able to make detailed observations of the data, and their final classifications should be similar to the modern day concept of plate boundaries. It is still critical to stress the distinction between an observation and an interpretation at this level. The exercise fosters teamwork at all levels as participants share their understanding of the data and make presentations to their peers.