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Educational Resources

Online tools

PBO H2O Data Portal uses GPS reflection data from NSF's Plate Boundary Observatory (PBO) to study the water cycle: Snow Depth, Vegetation, and Soil Moisture at locations around the United States.

GPS Velocities Map. This Google-Maps based viewer shows the motions of Earth's crust as GPS geodesy station velocities overlaid on maps of the Earth's tectonic plates, USA active faults, earthquake locations, and volcanoes.

GPS Spotlight

This site provides an overview on how GPS works and is primarily for students in grades 8-undergraduate. It particularly focuses on how GPS is used in the geosciences, explaining how GPS is used to study faults, earthquakes, volcanoes, the atmosphere, and environmental signals.

The Spotlight map provides real-world examples of GPS being used for geoscience research. Made in partnership with Kristine Larson, GPS Reflections Research Group, University of Colorado, and UNAVCO.


Educational Resources


For Undergraduates: Infinitesimal strain analysis using GPS data: Module for structural geology or geophysics course

Undergraduate Majors version and Introductory Undergraduate version
Understanding how the Earth's crust deforms is crucial in a variety of geoscience disciplines, including structural geology, tectonics, and hazards assessment (earthquake, volcano, landslide). With the installation of numerous high precision Global Positioning System (GPS) stations, our ability to measure how this deformation (strain) occurs has increased dramatically. Despite its importance to cutting edge geoscience research, GPS data is only rarely investigated in undergraduate courses. Most structural geology courses only cover finite strain (generally through the analysis of deformed fossils), missing the rich opportunity to investigate ongoing strain (infinitesimal strain) now measurable through methods such as GPS. This module introduces geoscience majors to using Plate Boundary Observatory (PBO) GPS data in order to study infinitesimal strain and connect it to broader tectonic settings and hazards.


For Grades 6 - 12 and Introductory Undergraduate. The focus on data makes these lessons adaptable for introductory college courses.

Teaching plate tectonics with GPS: A modern approach to a middle-aged paradigm.

Your students don’t need to take our word for plate tectonics. They can explore interactive maps, identify patterns, and develop ideas about where the edges of plates are and how plates move. This is geology instruction in the era of Google Earth, GIS, and real-time data on the Internet. Data overlaid on maps reveal geologic features so that students can see relationships among them. Students can visualize tectonic plates in motion by examining Global Positioning System (GPS) data that shows the change of position of a GPS receiver moving only a few millimeters in a year. They can track a station’s motion. They can see plate margins rumple.

This series of lessons supports your instruction of plate tectonics with seismic, volcanic, seafloor age, and GPS data. If you want your students to examine and analyze data, these lessons and activities provide the opportunity. The unit leads naturally to further exploration of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes.

  • Pure and simple graphing of GPS data
    Designed as a prequel for students who cannot yet graph earth science data skillfully or confidently, this activity guides students to making sense of graphed data and emphasizes making graphs—in order to learn how to interpret graphs. Students graph data measuring how the position of GPS stations move over time, north or south and east or west. By hand-drawing these graphs, students gain skills needed to understand “time series” graphs published online.
  • Measuring plate motion with GPS

    In this lesson, students learn how GPS works, then learn to interpret GPS data for as the station’s position moves over time in the north-south and east-west directions (“time series plots”). Students learn how to represent time series data as velocity vectors and how to graphically add the vectors to create a total horizontal velocity vector. They apply their skills to calculate the direction and speed of motion for two GPS stations located on different tectonic plates in Iceland.

  • Exploring plate motion and deformation in California with GPS

    Students analyze GPS data to study the motion of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. From this data, students detect relative motion between the plates in the San Andreas fault zone--with and without earthquakes. They interpret time series plots from an earthquake in Parkfield, CA to calculate resulting slip on the fault and (optionally) the earthquake’s magnitude.

  • Episodic tremor and slip: The Case of the Mystery Earthquakes

    In this lesson, students study seismic and GPS data from the Pacific Northwest region of the United States to recognize a pattern in which unusual tremors--with no surface earthquakes--coincide with jumps of GPS stations. Students model ductile and brittle behavior of the crust and assemble their knowledge of the data and models into an understanding of episodic tremor and slip (ETS) in subduction zones and its relevance to the millions of residents in Cascadia.

    More lessons exploring the Pacific Northwest / Cascadia

  • Taking the Pulse of Yellowstone’s “Breathing” Volcano: Problem-Based Learning in America’s First National Park

    Middle School - High School version and Introductory Undergraduate version
    In this activity, students learn about volcanism in Yellowstone National Park by focusing on its signs of volcanic activity: its history of eruption, recent seismicity, hydrothermal events, and ground deformation. They learn how scientists monitor volcanoes (using Mount St. Helens as an example) and then apply that as an open-ended problem to Yellowstone by identifying a site for a hypothetical research station. (formerly titled: Will It Blow? Monitoring Yellowstone's Volcanic Activity)

  • Visualizing Relationships Between Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Plate Boundaries in the Western U.S. Using EarthScope Jr.

    Learners use the web-based data viewing tool, EarthScope Jr., or the included map packet to visualize relationships between earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate boundaries in the western United States. The instructor's guide, worksheet, and map packet are required for this activity; the computer instructions are required if using a computer. Includes the instructor presentation (in pdf and ppt formats), student worksheet, computer instructions, and map packet.


Animations and videos

What can GPS tell us about future earthquakes? [download the .mp4]: How does the land over a subduction zone move before, during, and after a great earthquake? This animation compares the subduction zone east of Japan with a mirror-image subduction zone across the Pacific—the Cascadia subduction zone off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Using GPS, we can watch the surface of the Earth deform in response to the drag of one tectonic plate going under another. GPS stations along the coast of Japan had been moving to the west before the March 11, 2011 earthquake, and rebounded back to the east following the earthquake. Across the Pacific ocean, the shallow portion of the Cascadia plate boundary is similarly locked by friction, compressing the overlying North American Plate in a northeast direction during subduction of the Juan de Fuca Plate. We see this in data from EarthScope's Plate Boundary Observatory, a network including more than 1000 continuous GPS sites managed by UNAVCO. Ultimately, the continental margin will rebound suddenly to the southwest as the stored elastic energy is released for the first time since the last great Cascadia earthquake on January 26, 1700.



GPS and earthquake early warning [download the .mp4]: What makes for an effective earthquake early warning system? With seismic data alone, we cannot determine the magnitude and rupture area of great earthquakes as quickly and effectively as we can with the addition of GPS data. In this animation, we see why Japan's earthquake early warning system underestimated the magnitude of the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku event, leading to underestimates of the earthquake's effects. Can we more effectively detect and describe a similar great earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone by using GPS data from EarthScope's Plate Boundary Observatory?



Animations and videos are made in partnership with EarthScope, UNAVCO, CEETEP, IRIS, and Volcano Video & Graphics.


Global Positioning System (GPS) Tutorials

LiDAR Tutorials and Resources

General GPS Education Materials

Educational Online Interactives and Games

Polar Power through the Night: In this Flash-based interactive exercise, students try their hands at designing a power system to run the GPS equipment through three years (including three polar nights!) of study and learn about the power needs of scientists doing research in extreme, polar environments and the important factors in powering remote, autonomous power and communication systems in Polar regions. Funded by the Polar MRI grant.

EarthScope Workshop - Interactive Field Trip

Valley and Ridge to Blue Ridge Province - Shenandoah National Park: Explore the central Appalachian Mountain belt and the Blue Ridge Province with Dr. Steve Whitmeyer of James Madison University and Dr. Chuck Bailey of the College of William and Mary in this virtual field trip.You can zoom in from outer-space, hear a brief overview of each field stop, and read a summary of the local geology Additionaly YouTube presentations from the EarthScope Workshop for Interpretive Professionals: Central Appalachian Region held at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia in March, 2012 cover Regional Geology and Tectonics of the Central Appalachians, Highlighting Virginia, an overview of the Central Virginia Earthquake, and a Sense of Place.

Active Earth Monitor

GPS Undergraduate Courses Taught by the UNAVCO Community
Principles of the Global Positioning Systems [12.540]: Thomas Herring, MIT
Introduction to GNSS - Global Navigation Satellite Systems [ASEN 5090]: Penina Alexelrad, University of Colorado
GNSS Software and Applications [ASEN 6090]: Kristine Larson, University of Colorado

Last modified Wednesday, 23-Apr-2014 21:41:21 UTC