Academic journal article Science Scope

Investigating Axial Seamount: Using Student-Generated Models to Understand Plate Tectonics

Academic journal article Science Scope

Investigating Axial Seamount: Using Student-Generated Models to Understand Plate Tectonics

Article excerpt

The importance of engaging students in scientific modeling has been well established and features prominently in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013). Engaging students in this practice provides an authentic science experience; it also helps students make sense of the world around them (Krajick and Merritt 2012). We view scientific models as more than just representations of a natural phenomenon; they are tools with which students make sense of phenomena (Passmore, Svoboda, and Giere 2014). In this unit, we wanted students to be able to use their own models as tools for constructing a scientific explanation of a particular phenomenon, rather than as simple representations of the phenomenon.

A key step in designing these learning experiences was selecting an appropriate natural event that could serve as the anchoring phenomenon for the unit. We selected a puzzling phenomenon that would necessitate students gaining a strong understanding of the theory of plate tectonics and associated concepts and that would be engaging and relevant to their lives. Our location in the Pacific Northwest and proximity to the "ring of fire" gave us a number of options to consider. However, in an effort to connect with ongoing and current scientific work, we selected Axial Seamount as our anchoring phenomenon.


Earth science; integrated science



Plate tectonics


Continental drift


11 (55-minute) class periods



Scientific background

Axial Seamount is an underwater volcano located on the boundary of the Juan de Fuca and Pacific plates, about 300 miles off the coast of Oregon (see Figure 1). It is very active and well-studied, with documented eruptions in 1998, 2011, and 2015. Axial Seamount is located along a divergent boundary, which is why the volcano is so active. Given Axial's proximity to our geographic location, the availability of rich and current scientific content about the volcano, and the likely interest of our students in this phenomenon, Axial seemed to be an excellent topic to anchor our unit.


Lesson sequence

The main goal of this unit was to engage students in the practice of modeling to construct a valid scientific explanation of the existence of Axial Seamount through the theory of plate tectonics. We introduced Axial Seamount through a video news clip about the recent eruption and a series of data-rich activities developed by the New Millennium Observatory (NeMO) project, which reveal the volcanic nature of the seamount (see Resources). The four NeMO activities were conducted using a group jigsaw approach over two class periods. Although these activities are engaging, it is possible to begin the unit as we do below without using them by simply starting with the concept that Axial is a volcano. After completing these activities, students were ready to begin creating explanatory models that would help them make sense of this natural phenomenon. The following provides a day-by-day overview of the activities we used with students to help them co-construct models with their peers to understand the cause of the underwater volcano.

Day 1

Having introduced Axial, we began by asking the driving question: How did Axial Seamount come to be where it is today? Through facilitated discussion, we elicited students' initial ideas (e.g., "What do you see going on here?" and "What do you think caused the volcano to form here?") on poster paper in the front of the room. We then broke students into small groups of three or four to co-construct initial conceptual models to answer the driving question. Each group drew a conceptual model on poster paper and presented its model to the class through a facilitated share-out session (see Figure 2a for an example of a student group's initial model). …

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