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Visualizing Relationships with Data: Exploring plate boundaries with Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and GPS Data in the Western U.S. | Lessons on Plate Tectonics



Students are able to explain the relationships between earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate boundaries in the western United States and Alaska.



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

Teaching Time

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

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be familiar with using the internet.

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 activity to use data to learn about plate tectonics

Next Generation Science Standards

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


Students will be able to:

  • Describe how the locations of earthquakes, volcanoes, and velocity vectors from GPS stations inform us about plate boundary zones
  • Describe and draw a velocity vector
  • Analyze regional plate motion.
  • Interpret crustal deformation based on velocity vector map.
  • Describe the difference between a plate boundary and plate boundary zone


Learners use the UNAVCO GPS Velocity Viewer, or the included map packet to visualize relationships between earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate boundaries as a jigsaw activity.


This activity consists of four parts:

  1. Preparing the online map for study
  2. Compare and analyze earthquake and volcano locations
  3. Analyze regional crustal motions using GPS Vector Data
  4. Put it all together to interpret plate motions and boundary types


Websites for activity

GPS Velocity Viewer

EarthScope Voyager, Jr. - This website might not work properly with modern browsers. The GPS Velocity Viewer can be used for this activity.

Teacher materials: Western United States

Individual files:

Presentation: Western United States: Visualizing Relationships with Data: Exploring plate boundaries with Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and GPS Data [pptx]


8 MB • v: August 2016

Student materials

Student Worksheet Western United States [pdf]


8 MB • v: August 2016

Western United States blank map [pdf]


2 MB • v: August 2014

Teacher materials: Alaska

Presentation: Alaska: Visualizing Relationships Between Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and Plate Tectonics [pptx]

24 MB • v: March 2017

Student materials

Student Worksheet Alaska [pdf]


2 MB • v: March 2017

Alaska blank map [pdf]

Maps for paper-based instruction Western United States:

Individual maps with earthquake locations, volcano locations, velocity vectors, and blank map [pdf]


2 MB • v: August 2014

Module Development

Funding for this unit came from the Plate Boundary Observatory, NSF, NASA, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and UNAVCO. Authors are Roger Groom (Mt. Tabor Middle School), Cate Fox-Lent (UNAVCO), Shelley Olds (UNAVCO), and Nancy West (Quarter Dome Consulting).


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