Unifying Theory of Geology Class

The last quarter of a school year is often the most challenging- for both students and teachers. The end is in sight, but we still have a lot of content to cover. School activities ramp up- prom, Advanced Placement tests, field trips, awards ceremonies, senior brunch, and, for staff, professional development and planning for summer and the next academic year. All of these extra-curriculars mean working even harder in class to keep kids engaged with the content and learning that still has to happen- even if the weather is gorgeous and weekend plans are filling everyone’s heads.

This is the quarter that I teach about plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and mountain building- all interrelated topics and also with a high “wow” factor. In the Midwest, where earthquakes and eruptions are well, virtually non-existent, we have to figure out ways to bring all of these things into the classroom.

To begin, the students map the locations of about 40 earthquakes and another 40 volcanoes on a world map. Some students finish in minutes, quite comfortable with latitude and longitude, but many struggle with coordinates. Many of them don’t know the continents by sight or name, which makes understanding (or even noticing) patterns difficult and thinking about the crustal plates even more challenging. What I like about the mapping activity is that is lays a foundation for everything else that we do for the quarter. If the idea of plate tectonics is the unifying theory of the science of geology, then this mapping activity is the unifying assignment of high school earth science. We reference it almost daily- hammering home where the boundaries are, how they interact, and what happens when they move in various ways.

I typically start class with a warm-up question (the idea being that it gets my students in to learning mode faster- pencil and notebook out, in their seats, etc. as soon as the bell rings). By the third week of plate tectonics-related assignments, my students can often chant their answers in unison “Convergent!” or “Subduction” rolls off their collective tongues. But even better, is that they have internalized enough of the background information to come up with great questions of their own. This is the time of year that class discussion seems most possible- because earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, and other huge natural disasters are fascinating and horrifying to everyone, and because the major quakes in Japan, Haiti, and Chile reside in the recent memory of even my least-engaged students, it is easy to hook them into figuring out why things happen and where they happen and to really put the pieces of the geologic puzzle together.

I see students “getting” the bigger picture of geology during this quarter- the slow process of laying foundational and background knowledge (What is the earth made up of? How does it work? How do we know?) leads to a pay off this time of year. The kids that finish out the semester really have learned something, and I like to believe, connected enough dots in their mental map of the world that they won’t easily forget it.

Erin Parker

About Erin Parker

Erin Parker is still sometimes surprised to find herself in front of a classroom, where she teaches earth sciences to 150 boisterous students each semester in an urban public high school in Wisconsin. She also can’t imagine herself doing anything else, even on the tough days. Erin’s posts explore earth science through the lens of a public educator and advocate for a scientifically-literate world.
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Comments (2)

  1. Thanks for this great post. I remember when I took my first geology class and we got to the chapter on plate tectonics — suddenly it all made sense as a grand unifying theory for everything we’d been learning about up until that time. I’m glad your students are experiencing that excitement too.

    But I have to say, I’m dismayed by the idea of high school students not recognizing the continents by shape or sight — my daughter’s preschool has this as part of their curriculum. :-/

  2. chris loewen says:

    Hi Erin,

    I know you haven’t posted in a while but if you are still active I was wondering if you had an outline or website for your class. I too am a geology/earth science teacher and I am always struggling to find ideas and activities for this rather “interesting” crowd that shows up in these classes. I have a website here

    I’m willing to share any other stuff. Hope to hear from you.

    Chris Loewen