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Taking the Pulse of Yellowstone’s “Breathing” Volcano: Problem-Based Learning in America’s First National Park | Lessons on Plate Tectonics



Students are able to explain how scientists monitor volcanoes and to analyze geological data in order to select a site for a field research station.



This activity was developed for high school and middle school students. However, its focus on data makes it adaptable for introductory college courses.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be able to work in a team.

How the module is
situated in the course

This activity can be used at any time in an earth science class. However, in the sequence of lessons about plate tectonics, it fits well after activities on divergent, convergent, and transform plate boundaries as an open-ended lesson about hotspot volcanism.


Students learn about volcanism in Yellowstone National Park. They focus on the park’s history of eruption, current seismicity, hydrothermal events, and ground deformation. They learn how scientists monitor volcanoes (using Mount St. Helens as an example) and then apply that knowledge to Yellowstone as an open-ended problem. Their task is to identify a site for a research station.

Download Materials

All teacher and student files bundled

67 MB • v: February 25, 2015

Individual files for the module: Taking the pulse of Yellowstone’s "Breathing Volcano": Problem-Based Learning in America’s First National Park.

Teacher Guide [pdf]

2.7 MB • v: February 25, 2015

Word version [docx] for editing

2.6 MB • v: February 25, 2015

Student Worksheet with base map of Yellowstone [pdf]

2 MB • v: February 25, 2015

Word version [docx] for editing

4.1 MB • v: February 25, 2015

The Science of Prediction: Monitoring Volcanic Activity [pptx]

14 MB • v: February 25, 2015

PDF version with instructor notes

3.5 MB • v: February 25, 2015

This presentation can be provided either as full class or in student teams to learn about the signs of volcanic activity and how geologists monitor volcanoes, using the example of Mount St. Helens.

Jigsaw: There are three jigsaw pieces: eruption history, hydrothermal activity, and seismic activity. Students re-join their original teams to work together on the ground formation activity.

The Powerpoint and PDF files are designed to be used together. Download both versions of each jigsaw. The presentations have interactive data & content that leads the student teams to additional information, animations, and data. The PDF's include activity instructions & explanations of the content in the Slides. Alternatively, in non-computer classrooms, student teams can use the PDF's for a solid experience.

Eruption History Interactive Jigsaw Presentation [pptx]

4.8 MB • v: February 25, 2015


2.3 MB • v: February 25, 2015

Hydrothermal Activity Interactive Jigsaw Presentation [pptx]

13.1 MB • v: February 25, 2015


2.5 MB • v: February 25, 2015

Seismic Activity Interactive Jigsaw Presentation [pptx]

4.8 MB • v: February 25, 2015


2.1 MB • v: February 25, 2015

Ground Deformation Interactive Presentation [pptx]

7.4 MB • v: February 25, 2015


2 MB • v: February 25, 2015

All student teams work together on this activity to learn how ground deformation is measured with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) stations installed in and around Yellowstone.

Supplementary Files

Flour Box Volcano Lesson Plan [pdf]: Sand or spackle can be substituted for the flour. Courtesy Volcano Video Productions

859 KB • v: February 25, 2015

Hands-on Demonstration: Measure a changing volcano

Link to Caldera Box directions for teachers: from Oregon State University

Instructions for building a volcano out of a balloon, tubing, and a box of flour.

Resources to engage students

59 KB • v: February 25, 2015

Excel version for editing

68 KB • v: February 25, 2015

Links to many additional resources about Yellowstone, including art, videos, data, and more.

Supplementary Files

Map of Yellowstone [pdf]


697 KB • v: February 25, 2015

Extra map of Yellowstone for students to draw their data and notes.

Animated GIF of Yellowstone's inflation and deflation 2004 - 2011 [gif] as measured by PBO GPS

1 MB • v: February 25, 2015

Google Earth Files

KMZ bundle with all of the Google Earth files for this module

319 KB • v: November 19, 2018

KMZ maps: Yellowstone NPS map, caldera, lidar, geysers, earthquakes, leveling line, hydrothermal, and vertical displacement. **Note: Due to continual Google Earth upgrades some layers might appear as x's and will be updated on a yearly basis.**

Instructions for showing places and data on Google Earth [pdf]

417 KB • v: February 25, 2015

Word version [docx] for editing

536 KB • v: February 25, 2015

Module Development

This work is based on materials provided by the UNAVCO Education and Community Engagement Program, Plate Boundary Observatory, and the GAGE Facility supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) under NSF award: EAR 1261833 and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Authors are Denise Thompson (Orting Middle School), Shelley Olds (UNAVCO), and Nancy West (Quarter Dome Consulting).

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Last modified: 2020-04-16  04:16:32  America/Denver