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Plate Tectonics

Grades: 5 - 7
Length: Each lesson designed to take 2 class periods
Topics: plate tectonics, fossil evidence, geology, mapping, science history


These lessons are based on Alfred Wegener's pioneering studies that demonstrated that the scattered distribution of certain fossil plants and animals on present–day, widely separated continents would form coherent patterns if the continents are rejoined as the pre–existing supercontinent Gondwanaland. Although Alfred Wegener was not the first to suggest that continents have moved about the Earth, his presentation of carefully compiled evidence for continental drift inspired decades of scientific debate. Wegener's evidence, in concert with compelling evidence provided by post World War II technology, eventually led to universal acceptance of the theory of Plate Tectonics in the scientific community.

NGSS Alignment


    Lesson 1: Wegener’s Puzzling Evidence Exercise

    • Students will observe and analyze scientific evidence used by Wegener.
    • Students will read and interpret maps and map symbols.
    • Students will use the evidence to try to reconstruct the continents.
    • Students will interpret the evidence to formulate a hypothesis.
    • Students will defend their position on continental drift.

    Lesson 2: Plate Tectonics Tennis Ball Globe

    • Students will examine one method for creating a two-dimensional map of a spherical surface.
    • Students will create a model of the earth that they can hold and examine.
    • Students will examine plate boundaries, continents, and oceans on a globe.
    • Students will examine divergent, convergent, and transform plate boundaries.
    • Students will draw plate boundaries on a map and learn that more scientific data are needed to more accurately locate certain boundaries.
    • Students will compare the features on a map that fits on a sphere with the same features on a more standard flat, two-dimensional, map to learn how our standard maps are distorted towards the poles.

    Materials Needed:

    • Included in teaching companion pdf:
      • Overview: Plate Tectonics in a Nutshell
      • Handouts and maps (see appendices)
    • Coloring items—pencils, markers, sharp crayons
    • Scissors
    • Glue or tape
    • Old tennis ball - lesson 2

    Lesson Plan:

    Lesson 1: Wegener’s Puzzling Evidence Exercise
    Complete lesson plan
    Overview: ​Teacher presents overview of Wegener’s theory of plate tectonics. Students cut and color pieces of the continents according to fossil evidence. Student groups arrange the pieces using Key to Wegener’s Evident to support their arrangement and present and defend their reconstruction.​ ​Students should understand that using the shape of the continents to fit them back together is using one type of evidence. Using the presence of the same rock types is another form of evidence, and the presence of the same type and age fossils is yet another. Ask students if they can think of other types of evidence to search for that might be useful in solving their puzzle.

    Lesson 2: Plate Tectonics Tennis Ball Globe
    Complete lesson plan ​ 
    Overview: ​This activity creates a mini globe that shows the major plate boundaries of the world. It provides each student with his or her own physical model of the Earth’s plates and helps teach how hard it is to accurately portray a sphere (three-dimensional) on a flat map (two dimensional).