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Natural Science Projects on Tectonic Plates for 6th and 7th Graders

by Carissa Lawrence

Many middle school science standards require students to learn about the tectonic plates, and teachers can engage their students in small projects and activities that allow them to explore the mechanics of the tectonic plates first-hand. Science projects on tectonic plates don't have to be complex; it's more about finding different ways of helping students better understand the material.

Puzzling Tectonic Plates

While middle school students study the tectonic plates, teachers can assign projects that require them to research and demonstrate tectonic plate motion. These projects can be done in pairs or small groups. Provide students with a large diagram of the earth's major tectonic plates as they relate to each other. Have students glue the figure onto a poster board and then cut along the plate boundaries, making a puzzle. Challenge the groups to see who can put the plates back together correctly. Next, have students research tectonic plate motion and add their findings to each puzzle piece as arrows or colored lines that represent different boundary types, including convergent, divergent and transform. (Reference 3, pg 4-6)

Tectonic Plate Snack

You can have students demonstrate the types of motion that lead to divergent, convergent and transform boundaries through a project that uses snack-sized candy bars that contain different layers, such as Milky Way or Snickers. (Check for student allergies before introducing peanuts into the classroom.) Hand a candy bar to each student and instruct them to create cracks in the outer layer of the chocolate to represent tectonic plates. Next, ask students to pull their bars apart into two pieces, then push the pieces together, then slide the pieces in opposite directions to represent the creation of the various boundaries. Have students create diagrams of the activity or draw pictures and label each step in the process. (Reference 1, pg 8-9)

Seafloor Spreading Demonstration

Students can learn about how the seafloor spreads at mid-ocean ridges through a small group project that will challenge them to demonstrate how new oceanic crust forms out of a rift valley and spreads to either side of a mid-ocean ridge. First, provide each group with a sheet of paper, an empty oatmeal can, and scissors. Use a serrated knife to cut a 5 inch by ¼ inch slit in each oatmeal container. Have students fold the paper in half lengthwise and cut it into two strips. They should then put the strips on top of one another and push them into the can through the slit, leaving approximately 2 inches sticking out. Have students fold the tops of the strips onto opposite sides of the slit and hold the end of both strips in each hand. Then, students should pull the papers out slowly in opposite directions along the surface of the can. Ask students to explain what the box, slit and paper represent in relation to the process of seafloor spreading. (Reference 4)

How a Hot Spot Works

To introduce this project, explain hot spots and provide information about the Hawaiian Archipelago. Then, have students work in groups to simulate the formation the archipelago. Each group will need an aluminum pan, corn starch, water and a candle or other heat source. Groups will cover the bottom of their pan with approximately 1 inch of corn starch and then add small amounts of water until the corn starch reaches a paste-like consistency. Students will then carefully light their candle, hold one edge of the pan over it until the corn starch begins to bubble, and continue moving their pan across the flame--very slowly--and note the line of bubbles that is created. (Reference 2)

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