Plate tectonics can be a confusing subject for students in elementary and middle school. Engaging activities using edible models and real-time research help students understand how earthquakes work and why they happen. Appropriate activities can be used for both elementary and middle school grades and can be modified for individual and group activities.
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Windows to the Universe gives a delicious activity idea for students to model the different plate interactions. Have students make a model using a square foot of waxed paper as a base over which to spread half a centimetre's worth of frosting. The frosting represents the asthenosphere. The plates for this model will be represented by a fruit roll-up for oceanic crust and graham crackers for continental crust. Students can model different types of plate interactions using the food. For example, have them simulate a transform plate boundary like the San Andreas Fault by picking up the graham crackers off the frosting and turning them around so the two dry edges are next to each other. Kids can eat the model materials when the activity is done.
The Science Spot website suggests that elementary and middle school students could do a research project for an activity on plate tectonics. The project would be for the students (or groups of students) to research a major earthquake and then make a diary of experiences as if they were there. Students should include the location, the type of earthquake and destruction that happened, using all five senses to write about their "experience."
This is another "edible activity." Each student (or group of students) should get one hard-boiled egg, a plastic knife and plate. Explain that each part of the hard-boiled egg is like the Earth's layers. Students should crack the shell in several spots, representing tectonic plates. Then, students should move pieces of the shell together to see what happens. Explore the model further by cutting the egg open. Explain that the shell represents Earth's crust, the white represents the mantle and the yellow yolk is like Earth's core.
Have students keep track of how many earthquakes are happening all over the world. This activity takes place over a few days, a week or even a month. Hang a world map in the classroom and use a website such as USGS' Real Time Earthquake List to track earthquakes. You can narrow down earthquakes by size or area to modify this activity. Earthquakes should be marked with a pushpin or a small circular sticker. After completing the mapping exercise, children should examine the map to see if they see any patterns.
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