Plate Tectonics Box

1. The Big One - Sources and Standards

The idea came from Eric Muller’s activity Locating Earthquake Epicenters. His lesson suggests plotting daily earthquake data but I wasn’t able to spend a few minutes a day on that. Instead I modified Eric’s activity to fit in a single class period.

1. The Big One - Assessment


  1. Collect the handouts.
  2. Ask students to explain what causes an earthquake. Include both a short paragraph and a labeled picture.

Going Further

  1. Add information about earthquake depth to the student tables and the class map. The deepest earthquakes tend to take place on or near subduction zones.
  2. See if the location of volcanoes also matches the plate boundary lines. Add data about the mid-ocean ridges and identify plate boundary lines. See the Plate Patterns activity for details.
  3. Look at the earthquakes that didn’t line up on a plate boundary. What is happening there? Investigate the causes of earthquakes that didn’t occur on a plate boundary.
  4. Play with the “This Dynamic Planet” map which allows you to select certain types of data to display on a dynamically generated map. Some of the data types you can select are volcanoes, earthquakes of different magnitudes, impact craters, plate boundaries, latitude/longitude grids and more.

1. The Big One - Lesson Plan

Lesson Plan
What is an earthquake demo:

  1. Ask the students what they know about earthquakes. You can list their responses on the board.
  2. Tell students that you are going to demonstrate what causes an earthquake. Set the 2 piece of Plexiglas on the table side by side. Describe how the gap between the pieces represent a “fault” a crack on the Earth’s surface that is susceptible to suddenly giving way and moving. Don’t talk about tectonic plates yet since the students will soon discover their existence on their own! Simply refer to the pieces of Plexiglas as pieces of land with a fault in between.
  3. Lay a 6 inch piece of scotch tape along the fault line. Describe how the tape represents the rocks and soil along the fault that help hold the pieces together. Make the junction secure but don’t work too hard at taping the pieces together or you will have to push very hard to get the fault to slip.
  4. Optional: decorate the surfaces with Monopoly houses and pieces.
  5. Slowly and steadily push one piece of Plexiglas away from you while pulling the other piece towards you. Eventually the tape will give way and suddenly break free. Monopoly pieces may scatter.
  6. Discuss with your students what they observed, paying particular attention to the energy that is stored and suddenly released.

Computer research:

1. The Big One - Getting Ready

Getting Ready

  1. Reserve the computer lab.
  2. Make copies of “The Big One” handout.
  3. Make one copy of the “Big Quake Dates” handout per class (possibly on colored paper or cardstock paper) and cut it into strips with one time period per strip.
  4. Laminate the map if desired and hang it up near the front of the classroom.
  5. Set out remaining materials: Plexiglas, scotch tape, Monopoly houses, and color dots.

1. The Big One - Background

Earthquake epicenters 1963-1998: Image courtesy of NASA.Earthquake epicenters 1963-1998: Image courtesy of NASA.
Teacher Background

1. The Big One - Logistics

5-10 min earthquake demo
35-45 min computer research
45-50 min present research, plot on large map, look for patterns



  • 2 pieces of Plexiglas
  • scotch tape
  • Optional: Monopoly houses and game pieces
  • Computers with internet access
  • Copy of “The Big One” handout for each student
  • Copy of the “Big Quake Dates” sheet, cut into strips with one time period on each strip
  • Large world map, preferably laminated or coated so that removable sticky dots can be easily applied then removed after the activity.
  • 1 package 1/4” to 1/2” removable color dots (available in most stationary stores and drug stores for labeling maps and documents, each package usually contains 4 colors of dots: red, yellow, green and blue)

Quake Prints - Sources

For information about earthquakes and seismology, see:

  • The Science of Earthquakes, an article by Lisa Wald on the USGS website.

Quake Prints - Assessment

Going Further

  1. Go on a field trip to the Lawrence Hall of Science and let their excellent educators teach your students all about using seismographs. Afterwards, let students explore the interactive exhibits in the Forces the Shape the Bay exhibition.
  2. Try any one of the activities in the Earthquake! curriculum set, created by the Center for Science Education at the University of California, Berkeley. There are lesson plans for building your own seismograph, reading seismograms, locating epicenters, and using seismic clues to understand the interior of the Earth.
  3. For a kinesthetic version of this activity, try Whose Fault is It? by Eric Muller of the Exploratorium Teachers’ Institute (download Whose Fault is It? from Eric’s website under Earth Science activities). Students link hands and transmit p and s waves through their bodies and use the timing delay to calculate the epicenter of the earthquake.
  4. Listen to an earthquake! USGS has converted seismograms to sound files. Students can use them to reinforce seismology concepts such as how distance and magnitude affect a seismogram.