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Introduction to graphing GPS data | Lessons on Plate Tectonics



Students are able to graph geologic data as x-y graphs, or scatterplots.



This activity was developed for high school and middle school students, grades 6 - 12. However, its focus on data makes it adaptable for introductory college courses.

Teaching Time

Two class sessions (45 - 55 minutes) or homework.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be familiar with Cartesian coordinate systems (taught beginning in about 4th grade.)

How the lesson 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 is an optional prequel to Measuring plate motion with GPS for students who cannot yet graph earth science data skillfully or confidently."

Next Generation Science Standards

Performance Expectations: MS-ESS3-2, and HS-ESS1-5.


Students will be able to:

  • Make and interpret graphs (of GPS data)
  • Interpret time series plots (position vs. time) qualitatively and quantitatively
  • Map north vs. east positions to follow a GPS station’s location through time
  • Derive and describe velocity vectors from a map.


This activity emphasizes making graphs—in order to make interpreting graphs easier. Students graph data measuring how GPS stations move north or south and east or west. They begin by graphing fictitious data and progress to graphing data from several stations in the western United States. Eventually they graph north-south vs. east-west motion of a station in order to see that another purpose of plotting data is to make maps. They also develop intuition about vectors.


This activity consists of three parts:

  1. Using fictitious data, graph north vs. time and east vs. time.
  2. Using real data, graph north vs. time and east vs. time.
  3. Using real data, graph north vs. east, draw a vector to best fit the data, and measure the vector’s orientation and length, thus determining the GPS station’s velocity.

Download Materials

Teacher materials

All teacher and student files bundled

63 MB • v: August 2016

Individual files:

[pdf] Teacher Guide for Lesson: Introduction to graphing GPS data


38 MB • v: August 2016

[pptx]. Presentation: Introduction to graphing GPS data


15 MB • v: August 2016

Student materials

[pdf] Student Worksheet: Introduction to graphing GPS data.


3 MB • v: August 2016

Related Lessons

Measuring plate motion with GPS

The next lesson in this sequence is the introductory activity: Measuring plate motion with GPS, to learn the basics on how GPS works then learn about Iceland.


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 Roger Groom (Mt. Tabor Middle School), Cate Fox-Lent (UNAVCO), Shelley Olds (UNAVCO), Nancy West (Quarter Dome Consulting), and Kathleen Alexander (UNAVCO).


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