Planet X Module 2.            PLATE TECTONICS


Target Level   Year 8 – 12





The theory of Plate Tectonics was a revolutionary new concept in the field of earth science.  Only within the last 40 years has the idea that the crust is broken up into large moving plates been fully accepted.  The movement of the tectonic plates is responsible for several phenomenon including; earthquakes, volcanic activity, and the building of mountain ranges and islands.  This activity demonstrates the link between earthquake location and tectonic plate boundaries.  Students will plot epicenters on a simplified planet map and use the above processes as clues to determine plate movement.  The simplified Planet X. model reduces the complexity while retaining the essential features of Plate Tectonic Theory.


Focus Question  


Does the Earth have tectonic plates?




Students will:


1.       Plot epicenters of eight earthquakes and locate and name tectonic plates of Planet X., a fictitious earth colony.

2.      Complete three simple, hands-on activities to gain an understanding of topographic clues such as Island Arcs, Volcanic Mountain ranges and Hot Spots to determine plate movement on Planet X.

3.      Relate Planet X. data to the Earth and demonstrate an understanding of the current theory of plate tectonics and the role of seismic data in determining theoretical plate boundaries;


Materials Needed


1.       Copies of Plate Tectonics Activity.

2.      Colored pencils or markers and a ruler.

3.      Modeling Clay, rolling pin, clay cutting tools and oil.

4.      Supply of Ping Pong balls.




  1. Begin with a discussion on the location of earthquakes worldwide using classroom maps or maps provided in activity. Are there areas of high or low seismicity?  Is seismic activity randomly spaced or is there a pattern?
  2. Compare with Tectonic Plate map – what conclusions can students draw about the earthquakes and plate boundaries?
  3.  Discuss Wegener's theory of Pangea and Continental Drift.  On a large map ask students to look for continents that may have been joined, (e.g. Africa and South America). 
  4. Introduce Planet X scenario and divide into smaller groups.  Each group should complete the Ping Pong ball, Modeling Clay, and Hot spot activities to obtain a “clues” folder.  Students use generated seismic data to map epicenters of Planet X. and draw and name plate boundaries (Tectonic Plate Activity.)
  5. Groups present maps to class indicating what kind of plate movement would be expected at each boundary?  Do all maps look alike?
  6. Finish with a discussion of similar plate boundaries on World map.  (Andes, Pacific Ring of Fire, Mid-Atlantic ridge, and the San Andreas Fault.)




                        HOT SPOT ACTIVITY

                        MODELING CLAY ACTIVITY

                        PING PONG BALL ACTIVITY



Reference Data


Figure 1 Map of Planet X showing plate boundary interaction.

Core Curriculum Standards Met


Topic 1.   Inquiry, Process and Problem Solving.

Topic 8.   Composition of the Earth.

Topic 18.  Formation of Earth’s features





BOLT, Bruce A.,  Earthquakes,    W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, NY,  1999


STRADLER, Arthur N., Plate Tectonics,   Geo Books Publishing, Cambridge, MA, 1998



Recommended Internet Sites (active August, 2001)

This site has links to great hands-on activities for earthquake science.



Download “This Dynamic Planet” (T. Simkins and others.) here or order a copy of the map from US Geological Survey, Box 25286, Denver, CO.  80225. for $7 + $5 shipping.



“This Dynamic Earth, The Story of Plate Tectonics”, is a companion text to the above map.

“About Earthquakes” has links to an excellent collection of lectures.