Plate tectonics: investigating and visualising our dynamic earth

Plate tectonics: investigating and visualising our dynamic earth

Professor Scott McDonald and his colleagues outline the Geological models for Explorations Of Dynamic Earth (GEODE) project and how it is supporting students in investigating the phenomena and landforms associated with plate tectonics.

The Earth is a dynamic system in which constant activity in the planetary interior transforms the surface in ways that are awe-inspiring and also have significant impact on humans and our society. Major earthquakes and resulting tsunamis have had devastating effects on Indonesia and Japan in recent years, and volcanic eruptions have disrupted global air travel. The paradigm of plate tectonics, the conceptual framework that helps scientists describe these interconnected phenomena, is important for people to understand in order to inform their decision-making around energy use, water and mineral resource acquisition and allocation, as well as risk analysis for a variety of natural hazards.

The US Earth Science Literacy Initiative has identified plate tectonics as critical to a number of the big ideas in the geosciences, indicating that plate tectonics is essential for both scientists and citizens. However, it is a complex idea, and Earth and Space Science (ESS) educators face challenges helping students (and adults) learn complex systems ideas.

The physical and temporal scale

One challenge is the physical and temporal scale of the phenomena in geosciences. Many landforms resulting from plate tectonics are massive, making them difficult to observe across the relevant range of scales (mm to 1,000s of km), and often considered by students to be unchanging features rather than the result of dynamic processes. Geological processes unfold over millions of years, which makes them difficult for people to visualise or conceptualise. In addition, geosciences are rarely given as much emphasis as physics, chemistry and biology in secondary school curricula, and so students often receive instruction only in the middle grades (ages 11-14).

Finally, geosciences in secondary school are rarely treated as an investigatory science as it does not lend itself well to the typical laboratory exercises that are the staple activities in the other domains of science.

For almost ten years, the National Science Foundation-funded Earth and Space Science Partnership (ESSP) has been researching ways to improve ESS teaching and learning. Two years ago, the ESSP and the Concord Consortium (CC) (see: began a partnership to explore innovative technology-based approaches to ESS. Building on the research and professional development of these two teams along with additional funding from the National Science Foundation we are able to extend our work through a multi-million dollar project named ‘Geological models for Explorations Of Dynamic Earth’ (GEODE, see:


GEODE focuses on creating data visualisations and simulations designed to support students in investigating the phenomena and landforms associated with plate tectonics and to develop system-level understandings of the dynamic earth. GEODE is specifically designed to structure experiences for students where they need to develop their own explanations from evidence, investigate phenomena through data representations, and hypotheses testing with a simulation that models plate tectonics on an Earth-like planet.
GEODE is built around a data visualisation tool, the Seismic Explorer, and an interactive plate tectonics computer-based model, the Tectonic Explorer. These tools and the associated curriculum are research-based, drawing on the learning progressions research from the ESSP and a long history of curriculum and technology research and development at CC. The result is tools that transform secondary school geoscience into an investigatory science focused on developing a causal model for the dynamic earth.

What is the Seismic Explorer?

Seismic Explorer allows students to manipulate a visualisation of both up to the minute seismic data from the United States Geological Survey, data about rates of plate motion, and historic data about volcanic eruptions. Students can use this tool to look for patterns in earthquakes across the surface of the Earth, examine relationships between earthquake patterns and volcanic eruptions, volcanoes and other landforms, as well as zoom in on cross sections of the Earth to investigate patterns of earthquake depth.

Seismic Explorer becomes the source of rich data that can be used by students to develop hypotheses about the nature of the dynamic plate system that covers the Earth, and also how that system creates the landforms and pattern of geological events that we see around us.

What is the Tectonic Explorer?

Students then take the hypotheses they have developed and use Tectonic Explorer to examine dynamic plate action and its relationship to the formation of volcanoes and mountains. Students set up scenarios in the model and observe the emergent phenomena. They choose the number of plates for their planet, draw continents on some or all of the plates, set vectors of motion for each plate, and finally set the relative densities of the oceanic crust on each plate. Then they run their simulation and watch oceans close, continents collide, mountain ranges form and island chains develop. They can look at specific boundaries, create cross-sections, examine how converging, diverging and transform boundaries behave and the kinds of characteristic landforms they produce.

This integrated experience allows students to draw connections back to the data they examined in Seismic Explorer, helping them to build an explanatory model, focused beyond the individual boundary process to include the entire dynamic Earth system. These two powerful technology tools are combined with an online curriculum that teachers can use to complement their own local hands-on lessons. Through case studies, they examine the formation of the Andes Mountains, the Aleutian Islands and the Himalaya to understand convergence, examine the Red Sea and the mid-Atlantic to study divergence, and finally explore southern California to understand transform boundaries.

Key ideas

The Seismic and Tectonic Explorers, along with the curriculum are built on three key ideas:

• To understand Earth as a dynamic system, students must understand mantle convection, the mechanism that drives the motion of the plates;
• To understand plate tectonics as an explanatory model for the dynamic Earth, students must understand the plates covering Earth’s surface as an interconnected system, simultaneously interacting on multiple boundaries; and
• Models hold potential for transforming plate tectonics education by allowing students to experiment with otherwise inaccessible concepts.

This second finding means that students must develop the understanding that plates have boundary interactions on all sides, and these boundary interactions are part of a system where oceanic plate material is constantly being created and destroyed (recycled).
Our Earth is a complex and dynamic home that is full of amazing natural phenomena that both capture our imagination and also have tremendous social and human impact. We need to have citizens who understand how our Earth system processes create the environment in which we live so that they can make informed decisions about the way we use resources, the way we design our cities, and the way that we live our lives.

The ESSP and GEODE research and design team are developing engaging and sophisticated tools to allow students to investigate and understand plate tectonics and our dynamic Earth. As we move into the next phase of this work, a new National Science Foundation project called ‘GeoHazards: Modeling Natural Hazards and Assessing Risk’, we hope to develop similar research-based modelling tools and curricula for studying hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and landslides to expand students understanding of Earth and Space Sciences and the impact of our environment on our lives.

Scott McDonald
Tanya Furman
Pennsylvania State University
Amy Pallant
Hee-Sun Lee
Concord Consortium
Tweet @penn_state, @ConcordDotOrg

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