Essential Science for Teachers: Earth and Space Science
When Continents Collide Children’s Ideas About Mountains
Children’s Ideas About Mountains
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 was once flat, and water from rain or streams eroded the surface into valleys, leaving the high ground as mountains.
Many children know that the erosive power of water can carve deep canyons into land. One such example is the Grand Canyon, but almost every community has an example of erosion by water that leaves higher ground in its wake. Children may therefore reason that all mountains were carved out of a once-flat Earth. Most mountains are formed through the action of plate tectonics, especially where plates collide. In this session, the collision of continents riding on top of plates was featured as an example.
2. All mountains are formed by molten rock from a volcanic eruption.
The image of lava erupting from a volcano and creating new land is common in print and film media. Children often think that all mountains and volcanoes are closely linked, and often believe that all mountains can become volcanoes. While volcanoes are examples of mountains and mountain building is often associated with volcanic activity, most mountains are not themselves volcanoes and never were. Most mountains are the result of the uplift of land associated with the collision of tectonic plates.
- Baxter, J. Learning Science in the Schools: Research Reforming Practice, edited by In Duit and Glynn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 1999.
- Broadstock, M.J. “Children’s Understanding of Earth Systems Phenomena in Taiwan.” The Third International Seminar on Misconceptions and Educational Strategies on Science and Mathematics, Misconceptions Trust, Ithaca, NY: 1993.
- Happs, J. “Mountains.” Science Education Research Unit Paper 202. University of Waikato, New Zealand, 1982.
- 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.