Hi- I have done a fair amount of work on Plate Tectonics, including designing a curriculum unit for it (and an assessment unit for Plate boundaries).

Some papers on on my website at:

See in particular:

On students' models & learning difficulties:

Gobert, J. (2000). A typology of models for plate tectonics: Inferential power and barriers to understanding. International Journal of Science Education, 22(9), 937-977. (PDF)

On pedagogical approaches to teaching PT:

Gobert, J. & Clement, J. (1999). Effects of student-generated diagrams versus student-generated summaries on conceptual understanding of causal and dynamic knowledge in plate tectonics. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36(1), 39-53.

Gobert, J.D., & Pallant, A., (2004). Fostering studentsí epistemologies of models via authentic model-based tasks. Journal of Science Education and Technology. Vol 13(1), 7-22. 

Gobert, J.D. (2005). The Effects of Different learning Tasks on Model-building in Plate Tectonics: Diagramming Versus Explaining. Journal of Geoscience Education.

On assessment (although this is in other papers, above, too):

Zalles, D., Gobert, J., Pallant, A., Quellmalz, E. (2007). Building Data Literacy, Visualization, and Inquiry in Geoscience Education. In the Proceedings of the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) Education User Conference. Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc.

Gobert, J.D., Pallant, A.R., Krach, N., & Daniels, J.T.M. (in press). Unpacking inquiry skills from content knowledge in Geoscience: A research perspective with implications for assessment design. Int. Journal of Learning Technology.


Janice D. Gobert, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Psychology & Learning Sciences
Social Sciences & Policy Studies Dept.
    and Computer Science Dept.
Atwater Kent Room 103 (office); Salisbury Labs Rooms 112 & 113 (labs)
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Worcester, MA 01609
ph: 508.831.5619 (office); 508-831-4182, -4183 (labs)

Personal website see
Project website, see
From: Stella Heenan [[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Tuesday, April 06, 2010 9:10 AM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Foam Plate Tectonics Learning Activity

Larry Braile has a quite detailed write up for modelling faulting and
tectonic boundaries using different foam blocks and sheets:

Basic suggestions students have done in our classrooms for modelling:
same thickness of flexible foam for collision boundaries - model uplift,
folding and mountain building
different thicknesses of foam for subduction zones (thinner tends to
subduct under thicker)
thread two sheets up through a small gap between two desks for a
spreading ridge
flexible long sheets (like camping mattresses) draped over the backs of
crouched students - when the students roll, the plate above them moves
laterally - models convection cells

In all scenarios, features can be stuck or drawn onto the foam, e.g.
volcanoes, quake epicentres, magnetic striping, land masses.

All of these can work as discovery tasks: provide instructions of what
to do, and students observe what happens.