“How far apart were South America and Africa 60 million years ago?” That is one of the questions the 8th-grade Earth Science students at Arrowhead Middle School tried to answer on Friday using GPlates, an open-source research application that models the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates. Last Friday, I installed the GPlates software on 30 laptops provided to the students by Arrowhead Middle School, and prepared the software for the students’ experiments. This Friday, the students used their laptops to bridge the gap between Computer Science and Earth Science to study the age and movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates. Using the GPlates software, the students were able to interact with the changing Earth over time. They could reposition the globe to watch different continents shift over time, measure the distance between continents, and watch as new crust was created.
To answer the first question, students watched as the distance between South America and Africa changed over time. Using this software, they could clearly relate the changing Earth to other facts they were learning from the textbook, such as how the fossils of an ancient reptile, Mesosaurus, had been found only in South America and western Africa. Another question the students tried to answer using the GPlates software was “How were the Himalayan mountains created?” To answer this, the students first had to identify where the Himalayan mountains exist today. Next, they used GPlates to travel back in time and watch the continental collision between the Indo-Austrian Plate and the Eurasian Plates.
After answering these questions, each student was then asked to come up with two of their own testable questions related to the Earth’s tectonic plates. While the quality of the research questions varied widely, many showed a new understanding from their experiments. For example, a common question related to the formation of the Himalayan mountains was “What caused India to move more quickly than other continents.”
Despite GPlates being a fairly complicated research application used to model and study many different aspects of the Earth, the students were able to quickly learn to use it to perform the few simple tasks necessary for this project. And while these tasks only scratched the surface of GPlates’s capabilities, it was still able to provide a clear picture to the students of how the Earth has changed over time, and to clarify what the students have so far been learning from the textbook and lectures.
There was a little bit of overhead required for this project, including setting up each of the computers, becoming familiar with the software, and developing appropriate questions that could be answered using this software (prepared by their teacher). However, I was impressed by this software’s effectiveness at getting the students involved in learning about plate tectonics, especially among the students who don’t usually participate in the in-class activities. I think the novelty of using the computer to study what they’d been learning in class and the interactive nature of the software made it a useful tool for teaching the students about tectonic plates.