Experiential Science: Earth’s Layers and Plate Tectonics (Earth, Part 1)

My kids all decided that they wanted to learn about volcanoes.  For whatever reason, this choice did not inspire me–perhaps because it left me thinking, “How on earth am I going to take six weeks to talk about volcanoes?!”  But the more I thought about it, the more interesting stuff there was that connected to the topic of volcanoes.  In fact, as I began writing about this unit study, I discovered that we hit so many topics and used so many resources that this post was becoming impossibly long, so I am breaking this into several smaller posts for sanity.  Stay tuned for more as I get it written!

I started by making a list of topics I wanted to hit, as well as the order I thought most logical, and then I went hunting for resources.  I hit the jackpot when I stumbled on the American Red Cross Masters of Disaster materials.  For our purposes, I settled on the Level Two earthquake-themed materials, but the site was so cool that I linked you to the main page (apparently hosted by PBS, despite the differing address listed on the materials) so you could admire all of the topic options.

Earth’s Layers and Plate Tectonics


This was the only aspect of our study I actually remembered to photograph.  It was also delicious.

Using the Masters of Disaster downloadable packet (link in above paragraph), we started by studying the makeup of the earth, reading about its layers and graphing the depth of each.  The packet suggested an Earth’s Layers cake, but I couldn’t settle for their simple setup; I had to go all-out with a DIY Earth’s Layers Cake that I crafted.

After enjoying the layers of the earth (yum!), we moved on to the idea of Pangaea and plate tectonics This video from PBS provided a good introduction to the topic, and we followed it up with material from the Masters of Disaster packet, which also included cut-outs of the continents that you could manipulate to show how they once fit together.

Once we had the concept of plate tectonics, we needed to establish the “so what” and link the whole topic to what they originally wanted to study–volcanoes.  So I grabbed a freebie world map my parents had gotten in the mail, headed my browser to Wikipedia’s lists of recent volcanic eruptions and recent earthquakes, and started calling out locations for my kids to find.  (Bonus–world geography workout!)  After a while, they began noticing that certain areas seemed to have an awful lot of marks on them–which of course led to a Socratic discussion.  We followed that up with this graphic (again hosted by PBS), which allows you to view the earth’s tectonic plate boundaries and overlay dots representing earthquakes and volcanoes.

This seemed like a great time to go into depth about the different types of plate boundaries, specifically why not all of them are peppered with volcanoes.  The Masters of Disaster packet offered a chocolate-related demonstration of what happens at the plate boundaries, and–of course–I couldn’t resist.  They didn’t specify what they meant by more/less dense chocolate, so after some failed internet searches regarding chocolate density, I figured I’d just have some chocolate bars I kept in the fridge (more dense) and some at room (or even pants pocket) temperature (less dense).  It was a delicate balance to have the chocolate soft enough to do what it needed to do without having it so soft that it couldn’t be manipulated, but we did okay–and the kids were thrilled to eat our sample tectonic plates at the end.

Once again, PBS had a little graphic to manipulate to show what happened at the different plate boundaries, and the kids thought this was great; it worked as a quick review of what we had learned in our chocolate demonstration.  If, like me, you like the occasional video to help cement concepts, I’ve got a couple short ones to suggest.  I found this simple YouTube video explaining the types of plate boundaries, and if you really want to turn up your nerd factor, this teacher made a YouTube rap video featuring the different types of plate boundaries.  The chorus is still stuck in my head, and it’s been nearly a month since we watched it!

Next up: The Rock Cycle (Earth, Part 2)


2 thoughts on “Experiential Science: Earth’s Layers and Plate Tectonics (Earth, Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Experiential Science: Rock Cycle (Earth, Part 2) | butmostlymommy

  2. Pingback: Experiential Science: Earthquakes and Volcanoes (Earth, Part 3) | butmostlymommy

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