Plate Tectonics: Brush, Bump and Pull Experiment

Plate Tectonics: Brush, Bump and Pull Experiment


This sheet contains instructions to help guide students through the experiment.

Go through this experiment with students to help them visualize what might change on the earth’s surface when the tectonic plates move.

  1. Divide students into groups of two partners.
  2. Have every group fill a pie pan with 1 inch of water.
  3. Pass out a Styrofoam® cup to each child.
  4. Have each student tear the cup into about 12 pieces to represent the major tectonic plates underlying the earth’s surface, and float them on the water, in turns. They have just modeled the lithosphere—the place deep below the surface of the earth where the tectonic plates are located. In the real lithosphere, the tectonic plates are floating on magma. Here they are floating on water.
  5. Students should gently experiment with their Styrofoam® tectonic plates. First, they should pull them apart. Ask them, “What do you see in the space where the Styrofoam® pieces once touched?” (Water. In real life, this is magma.) What might it create?
  6. Now, students should gently bump two plates together. Ask them, “What might happen on the surface from a bump like this below? Could it push magma into a mountain range? Cause an earthquake?” (Yes.)
  7. Now, students should push one plate under the other (water squirts a bit). Tell students, “Remember, water is magma in our model. So what might you get here on earth from magma shooting up—a volcano?”
  8. Now model the Haiti earthquake that struck in January 2010. It was caused by the motions of two plates grinding past each other in opposite directions. In the case of Haiti, the Caribbean plate moved east past the North American plate. It’s called a strike-slip fault.
  9. Ask students to experiment for five minutes in different ways with all 12 plates. Ask them to think of what would happen on the surface.
  10. Now, ask students to turn to the nearest person who isn’t their partner and show him/her one plate interaction. The partners should interpret it—that is tell what happens on the surface when tectonic plates behave the way you have shown them. Then students should trade places.
This teacher sheet is a part of the Shape It Up lesson.

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