Plate Tectonics and Landform Patterns

In this unit, students study Earth’s systems, analyzing the science phenomena of natural processes that shape Earth’s surface. In this lesson, students model the different ways that tectonic plates move to observe how landforms are created. This page showcases key aspects of this lesson.

Science Background for Teachers:

The teacher background section gives educators more in-depth information on the phenomena students explore in this unit. Here is an excerpt from the science background information for this lesson on plate tectonics and landform patterns.

The interactions of Earth’s layers explain how a seabed could become a plateau rising high into the air. The hot magma in Earth’s mantle is constantly moving. Hot magma rises and cool magma sinks, causing a powerful circular motion called convection.

Convection happens because as an object is heated, its particles move faster, becoming more spread out and less dense. In a fluid such as air or water, the warmer fluid rises, allowing cooler, denser fluid to take its place. As the warmer fluid rises to the cooler area, its particles begin to cool, slowing down and clumping together, becoming denser. As the particles become denser, they sink. This causes a tumbling motion.

As the mantle moves because of convection, it carries with it the pieces of the lithosphere. These drifting slabs of solid rock that make up Earth’s surface are called tectonic plates, and they are constantly moving and interacting. The places where the tectonic plates meet are called fault lines.

The energy that powers convection in Earth’s mantle causes the tectonic plates to move extremely slowly—no more than a few centimeters a year, although the different plates move at varying speeds and in different directions. Scientists continue to study the complex behaviors of the plates, which sometimes crash together, pull apart, or sideswipe each other. Volcanoes and earthquakes, as well as mountain ranges and islands, all result from this movement.

When two plates move away from each other perpendicular to the fault line, they form a divergent boundary. This movement creates ocean ridges and rift valleys, and may result in earthquakes and magma welling up onto the surface.

When two plates move toward one another perpendicular to the fault line, they form a convergent boundary. When two plates converge on eachother, sometimes one of the plates sinks under another plate. This is called subduction—the process that occurs when two plates crash into eachother and the edge of the heavier plate slides beneath the lighter one.

The heavier crust melts back into the Earth's mantle, becoming magma. As it melts, some of it returns to the surface as volcanoes and lava flows, creating volcanic mountain ranges. When two continental plates converge on one another, neither is subducted because both plates are relatively light. Instead, the force is so powerful that the land is uplifted and mountain ranges form.

Sometimes plates slide past one another parallel to each other. This happens at transform plate boundaries, and it results in the plates grinding along their sides as they go. As they rub against each other, the tremendous amount of friction causes earthquakes.

Supports Grade 4

Science Lesson: Understanding Plate Tectonics and Landform Patterns

In this lesson, students analyze how Earth’s surface has changed over time, powered by energy from the sun and Earth’s interior. They evaluate how the locations of various landforms, including mountains, valleys, and volcanoes, occur in patterns because of how Earth’s interior layers interact and change. 

Science Big Ideas

  • Scientists study Earth’s structure to learn about how Earth has changed over time. 
  • Like all terrestrial objects, including the terrestrial planets and moons, Earth’s surface is made up of rocks, which are mixtures of minerals.
  • Earth is a dynamic planet because Earth’s internal structure causes changes on the surface over time.
  • Many of Earth’s surface features and events are caused by the movement of tectonic plates.  
  • There is a cause-and-effect relationship between the movement of tectonic plates and the resulting landforms and surface events. This cause-and- effect relationship causes patterns in the locations of those landforms and events.
  • Tectonic plates move because they are pushed and pulled by semi-solid magma that makes up Earth’s mantle and flows in currents beneath the crust.
  • Earthquakes and volcanoes often occur in similar locations because they are caused by the same forces.

Sample Unit CTA-2
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Prepared hands-on materials, full year grade-specific curriculum, and personalized live professional development designed to support mastery of current state science standards.

Science Essential Questions

  • Why do minerals have different properties?
  • How do tectonic plates fit into Earth’s structure?
  • What is the relationship between tectonic plates, oceans, and continents?
  • What surface events are caused by convergent plate boundaries? What surface events are caused by divergent plate boundaries?
  • Why are mountain ranges common along the edges of the continents?
  • Why do earthquakes and volcanoes often occur in similar locations?  

Common Science Misconceptions

Misconception: Earth’s surface is static and does not change.
Fact: Earth’s surface is constantly changing. Plate tectonics, weathering, and erosion are three processes that change Earth’s surface over time.
Misconception: Earth’s landforms, such as mountains and valleys, occur randomly around the planet.
Fact: Mountains and valleys are formed by interactions of Earth’s tectonic plates, so there are patterns in their locations, which often correspond to plate boundaries.

Science Vocabulary

Convergent boundary: a plate boundary formed when two tectonic plates move toward one another perpendicular to the fault line

Divergent boundary:  a plate boundary formed when two tectonic plates move apart from one another perpendicular to the fault line

Rock cycle: the processes that form, break down, and re-form rock from one category to another

Rocks: mixed mineral matter that makes up the surface of Earth and other terrestrial objects

Sediment:  a collection of particles of rocks, minerals, and the remains of plants and animals

Tectonic plates: drifting slabs of solid rock, called plates, that make up Earth’s surface

Transform boundary: a plate boundary formed when two tectonic plates slide past each other in parallel, grinding along their sides as they move

Weathering: the breakdown of rock into smaller pieces from exposure to wind, water, gravity, changes in temperature, and/or biological forces

Lexile(R) Certified Non-Fiction Science Reading (Excerpt)

The Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is one of the deepest and widest canyons in the world. It is so large that it can be seen from space. At its widest, it is 29 kilometers (18 miles) across. It is 446 kilometers (277 miles) long and more than 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) deep.

The canyon holds clues to Earth’s past going back two million years. Like detectives, scientists study the properties of the rocks that make up the Grand Canyon.

These rocks tell a story about how they were formed and what the environment was like when they formed. By studying the rocks, scientists have learned that Earth’s surface is always changing.


Properties of Rocks

The Grand Canyon is made up of many different kinds of rock. Rocks make up the surface of Earth and other terrestrial objects, including planets and moons. They are kinds of matter made up of mixtures of different minerals.

Minerals are naturally occurring. This means they are not made by humans. They would exist on Earth without people.

Minerals are inorganic. This is because they are not the product of something that is living or was once alive. Leaves and shells are organic because they come from something that was once alive.

Minerals also have a definite chemical composition. This means that every mineral is made up of the same kind and number of atoms. Lastly, minerals have an orderly crystal structure. This means their atoms are neatly organized to form a repeating pattern.

When minerals are pressed together by heat and pressure, they can combine to form different kinds of rock.


A Changing Planet

The clues in Earth’s rocks tell scientists that Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. The rocks also provide evidence for how the land has changed many times since then.

Scientists believe the Grand Canyon formed 5.5 million years ago. Before that, nearly 2 billion years ago, mountains rose 10 kilometers (6 miles) above sea level where the Grand Canyon is today. This is as high as the Himalayas are.

Over time, the mountains wore down. The land became flat. Oceans covered it. And then a major disturbance changed the land. This disturbance pushed up the entire seabed to form a plateau. A plateau is an area of land that is relatively flat and significantly higher than the surrounding area.


Hands-on Science Activity

In this lesson, students simulate the movement of tectonic plates to observe the cause-and-effect relationship between their movement and patterns in Earth’s features. Students use their observations about the cause-and-effect relationship between tectonic plates and Earth’s features to identify and explain patterns in the locations of mountain ranges, volcanoes, and earthquakes.

Science Assessments

KnowAtom incorporates formative and summative assessments designed to make students thinking visible for deeper student-centered learning.

  • Vocabulary Check
  • Lab Checkpoints
  • Concept Check Assessment 
  • Concept Map Assessment 
  • And More...


Science Standards

See How KnowAtom Aligns to NGSS Science Standards

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Download the Alignment to NGSS

Standards citation: NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Neither WestEd nor the lead states and partners that developed the Next Generation Science Standards were involved in the production of this product, and do not endorse it.