Plate tectonics and Earth's structure

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Field Trip - Lawrence Hall of Science

Summary
The Lawrence Hall of Science in the hills above UC Berkeley offers fantastic hands-on workshops and exhibits related to earthquakes and plate tectonics. The middle school program, “Earthquakes: Whose Fault Is It?” provides an excellent introduction to seismology. The program begins with a large puzzle of the Earth’s tectonic plates to introduce the idea of plate tectonics and begin a discussion of the location and movement of the tectonic plates. Students then investigate earthquakes and learn to read real and simulated seismograms. Finally, students use seismic recordings to locate the epicenter of an earthquake. Afterward the workshop, the permanent outdoor exhibit, “Forces that Shape the Bay” provides a free-form venue to explore plate tectonics through hands-on exhibits. The other exhibits and planetarium are also worthwhile.

Project - Earthquake Towers

Earthquake TowerEarthquake TowerSummary
In this project, students construct drinking straw towers that must withstand the shaking of a shake table. One by one, 250 gram sandbags are loaded onto the towers. The towers must remain standing for 1 minute from the start of the simulated earthquake. Students then have 2 minutes to repair any damage before another sandbag is loaded and the next earthquake test begins. Students quickly learn basic principles of earthquake engineering and architecture as well as the team skills that are a basic part of all science and engineering fields.

5. Seafloor Spreading

Summary
Students take what they know about earthquake, volcano and mid-ocean ridge distributions (The Big One and Plate Patterns) and put it together with what they know about convection in the Earth’s mantle (Journey Through Earth and Convection in a Pan). They revisit what they know about how earthquakes are created, by the sudden release of energy as plates collide or rub together (but not so much when they split apart). They look for patterns in their world maps, observing that mid-ocean ridges and dense earthquake/volcano zones tend to lie on the opposite side of plates. With this information, they can infer the direction that the plates are moving. Next students build a model illustrating seafloor spreading and discuss the magnetic and seafloor age data that support this model. Finally, students codify the different types of plate boundaries, describing the various features and characteristics of each.

4. Convection in a Pan

Summary
What drives the motion of the Earth’s tectonic plates? Partly, it is convection, the process by which heat energy is transferred by currents in a liquid or gas. Convection currents within the mantle carry tectonic plates along with the slowly moving mantle like giant rafts carried along by a current in a river. To help students understand this idea, soapy water in a pie pan is heated from below and convections currents can be observed forming and moving in the soapy water. Several prelude demonstrations help students recognize that hot things rise and cold things sink.

3. Journey Through Earth

Summary
In the style of Jules Verne’s book Journey to the Center of the Earth, take your students on a walk, using sidewalk chalk to mark the boundaries between the different layers inside our planet. After you pass through each layer, tell your students about the layer of the Earth they just traveled through. This lesson was developed by Eric Muller of the Exploratorium Teachers’ Institute. Here you will find a student handout for taking notes during the walk, a teacher cheat sheet and some assessment ideas. Download a detailed lesson plan for this activity from Eric Muller’s website, originally published in The Science Teacher, September 1995.