Academic journal article The Science Teacher

A Virtual Tour of Plate Tectonics: Using Google Earth for Inquiry Investigations

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

A Virtual Tour of Plate Tectonics: Using Google Earth for Inquiry Investigations

Article excerpt

Google Earth is an exciting way to engage students in scientific inquiry--the foundation of science education standards and reforms. The National Science Education Standards identify inquiry as an active process that incorporates questioning, gathering and analyzing data, and thinking critically about the interplay of evidence and explanations (NRC 1996). Inquiry comes in a variety of shapes and sizes--from students analyzing teacher-provided data that answers teacher-posed questions to students gathering and analyzing data to answer their own research questions. One of science education's main goals is to, over time, increase students' scientific inquiry skills.

Developing inquiry activities can be time intensive and daunting, but researchers recognize educational technology as a means to facilitate inquiry instruction (Sandholtz, Ringstaff, and Dwyer 1997). Google Earth is internet-based, open-source software that supports the sharing of user-developed materials. Teachers can download resources, including activities and lesson plans. In this way, Google Earth pro-motes the communication and analysis of vast stores of data in an engaging, intuitive interface. This article describes how teachers can use Google Earth to support inquiry instruction in both general and Earth science classrooms.

Using Google Earth to support inquiry

Google Earth's images and information layers offer end-less possibilities for students to collect observational data. Activities expand beyond the laboratory, incorporating interactive visual learning, models, and large-scale interpretations. Another benefit: Google Earth--based inquiry investigations support students working alone, in small groups, and as a whole class.

To illustrate how Google Earth can enhance scientific inquiry, this article presents a tour of plate tectonics. The tour demonstrates how supported, or guided, inquiry can segue into student-developed inquiry. Figure 1 lists links where you can find the software files needed to operate the plate tectonics tour on Google Earth, as well as associated materials and websites with additional tours.


Materials needed or useful for the plate tectonics tour.

Google Earth Download:

Tour creation instructions:

Plate Tectonics Tour file:


Research data chart:

Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program information (click on "Volcano Layer Placemark" to download):

U.S. Geological Survey's plate tectonics tour:

Google Earth Lessons:

Google Earth Gallery:

Lesson Plans and Activities compatible with Google Earth:

Scholastic Teaching Resources: and

About the activity

The plate tectonics tour, appropriate for grades 8-12, focuses on a major theme in Earth science curricula. The activity engages students in overarching Earth science concepts without sacrificing in-depth exploration.

I, the first author, implemented this activity with a student teacher. Though our students were mainly ninth-graders, I created an additional high-level inquiry activity to appeal to students in grades 10--12.

To develop a comfortable environment in my ninth-grade Earth science classroom, I used structured, student-centered inquiry to challenge students to share and critically evaluate classmates' conclusions and encourage careful observation, evidence-based conclusions, and questioning. …

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