Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science
The Engine That Drives the Earth Children’s Ideas About Plate Tectonics
Below are common ideas children in grades K-6 have about this topic, compiled from research on children’s ideas about science (see the Session 1 Children’s Ideas Bibliography). Consider what evidence might refute this idea, and why a child would be likely to believe this?
1. Earth has a hot molten core that is the source of magma that flows out of volcanoes as lava.
Earth has a solid metallic inner core, and a liquid metallic outer core. Popular media often perpetuates the misconception that because the interior of the Earth is hot, it must also be molten. This can mislead students of all ages into believing that the magma seen coming out of volcanoes comes from the core. Current science knowledge informs us that the source of magma that erupts as lava out of a volcano is the solid mantle, which melts at low pressure near the surface to generate magma.
2. Many children in grades K-6 cannot readily explain why earthquakes occur, nor visualize what happens underground during an earthquake.
Earthquakes are usually caused by an abrupt shift and breaking of rock along fault lines. The cause of earthquakes can ultimately be traced back to plate tectonic processes. Children often struggle with visualizing a concept that cannot be directly observed.
3. Earthquakes and volcanoes only happen near one another, and earthquakes cause volcanic eruptions.
Most earthquakes occur along plate boundaries, because of abrupt shifts in the position of tectonic plates. Earthquakes are not thought to be a cause of volcanic eruptions. In fact, volcanoes often cause earthquakes instead. Volcanoes erupt when magma is less dense than the solid rock surrounding it in the mantle, and it begins to rise. Rising magma can sometimes cause earthquakes in the surrounding crust. As magma nears the surface, the gases in it expand, increasing the pressure and causing the volcano to erupt, much as the gases in soda ‘erupt’ when a can or bottle of soda is opened. Children do not necessarily associate earthquakes with the shifting and breaking of rock along fault lines, perhaps because this is often an unseen phenomenon. The connection between earthquakes and volcanoes may cause children to reason that they always co-occur.
- Happs, J. “Mountains.” Science Education Research Unit Paper 202. University of Waikato, New Zealand, 1982.
- Lillo, J. “An Analysis of the Annotated Drawings of the Internal Structure of the Earth Made by Students Ages 10 to 15 From Primary and Secondary Schools in Spain.” Teaching Earth Sciences 19, no. 3 (1994): 83 – 87.
- Ross, K. and Shuell, T. “Children’s Beliefs about Earthquakes.” Science Education 72, no. 2 (1993): 191 – 205.
- Sharpe, J., Mackintoch, M., and Seedhouse, P. “Some Comments on Children’s Ideas About Earth Structure, Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Plates.” Teaching Earth Sciences 20, no. 1 (1995): 28 – 30.
- Smith, M., Southard, J. and Mably, C. “Investigating Earth Systems: Our Dynamic Planet.” Teacher’s Edition. Armonk, NY: It’s About Time. (2002).
Session 1 Earth’s Solid Membrane: Soil
How does soil appear on a newly born, barren volcanic island? In this session, participants explore how soil is formed, its role in certain Earth processes, its composition and structure, and its place in the structure of the Earth.
Session 2 Every Rock Tells A Story
How can we use rocks to understand events in the Earth's past? In this session, participants explore the processes that form sedimentary rocks, learn how fossils are preserved, and are introduced to the theory of plate tectonics.
Session 3 Journey to the Earth’s Interior
How do we know what the interior of the Earth is like if we've never been there? In this session, participants examine the internal structure of the Earth and learn how it is possible for entire continents to move across its surface.
Session 4 The Engine That Drives the Earth
What drives the movement of tectonic plates? In this session, participants learn how plates interact at plate margins, how volcanoes work, and the story of Hawaii's formation.
Session 5 When Continents Collide
How is it possible that marine fossils are found on Mount Everest, the world's highest continental mountain? In this session, participants learn what happens when continents collide and how this process shapes the surface of the Earth.
Session 6 Restless Landscapes
If almost all mountains are formed the same way, why do they look so different? In this session, participants learn about the forces continually at work on the surface of the Earth that sculpt the ever-changing landscape.
Session 7 Our Nearest Neighbor: The Moon
Why is the Moon, our nearest neighbor in the solar system, so different from the Earth? In this session, participants explore the complex connections between the Earth and Moon, the origin of the Moon, and the roles played by gravity and collisions in the Earth-Moon system.
Session 8 Order out of Chaos: Our Solar System
Why do all the planets orbit the Sun in the same direction and why are the planets closest to the Sun so different from the gas giants farther out? In this session, participants gain a better understanding of the nature of the solar system by examining its formation.