Discovering Plate Boundaries is a classroom activity in which students examine and interpret multiple data sets (topography/bathymetry, seafloor age, earthquake distribution and volcano distribution), figure out how these data vary across tectonic plate boundaries, and then use this knowledge to analyze and interpret an unfamiliar plate boundary.
The content--the distribution and characteristics of tectonic plate boundaries--is central to the modern understanding of earth processes, and thus appropriate for a time-intensive discovery activity. Our specialist reviewers praised Discovering Plate Boundaries for the way in which students are engaged in concentration, observation, interpretation, question-formation and collaboration. They will not only learn about plate tectonics, but '...will also get a real feel for how scientists work and collaborate...'
The Teachers Guide is clear and easy to use, with excellent visuals, practical tips, observations and curricular ideas. The handouts/maps/downloads are well-organized and annotated, and would be easy to incorporate into one's classroom. The data are professional caliber datasets as used by real scientists. One confusing part about the provided data is that the volcanism along the mid-ocean ridges is not shown on the volcano maps, except for islands like Iceland, so it is hard for students to 'discover' that fresh volcanism is a characteristics of divergent plate boundaries.
Several of our specialist reviewers noted that in order to use the activity most effectively, the instructor must have a high level of content knowledge about plate boundaries. This is particularly true of Session 3, which revolves around oral presentations by the students; the teacher needs a high level of knowledge of plate boundaries in order to provide meaningful feedback to the students and then tie together the student presentations into a concluding synthesis. One reviewer specifically noted that the age of the seafloor data set needs explanation (how do we know that the seafloor gets older away from mid-ocean ridges?); a knowledgeable instructor could provide this information, but the activity itself does not.
Educator/reviewers who used Discovering Plate Boundaries in their classroom were generally pleased with the activity, but they reported a number of points at which the students had difficulty figuring out what they were supposed to do and how to do it, for both undergraduate and high school students. This may be because students have limited experience in making original interpretations from spatial data sets. One community reviewer's good advice on this point: 'Educators should do the exercise completely themselves to see where students might have difficulty. This will help lead an exciting lab. I wouldn't recommend your first run be in the classroom.' Although documentation says that the activity has been used successfully with students from middle school through college, our specialist reviewers thought that it would be best suited for use in a university setting. Reviews from high school students report that they found the activity hard.
Kim Kastens, 15 Sept 2005