ALEX Lesson Plan


Edible Plate Tectonics

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  This lesson provided by:  
Author:Reid Fisher
System: Informal Education Partner
School: Informal Education Partner
  General Lesson Information  
Lesson Plan ID: 29840


Edible Plate Tectonics


As we stand on the top layer of our planet it is a little difficult to get hands-on with plate tectonics.  This activity uses layered cake to allow students an up close representation of how major land features have been created.

 Associated Standards and Objectives 
Content Standard(s):
SC (9-12) Geology Elective
3. Explain natural phenomena that shape the surface of Earth, including rock cycles, plate motions and interactions, erosion and deposition, volcanism, earthquakes, weathering, and tides.
SC (9-12) Geology Elective
4. Describe the topography of the sea floor and the continents.
  • Describing the formation of continental shelves
  • Explaining changes of continental topography caused by erosion and uplift
  • Example: formation of southern Appalachian Mountains in Alabama
    SC (9-12) Geology Elective
    10. Explain the mechanism of plate tectonics.
  • Explaining processes that cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions
  • Identifying Earth's main tectonic plates
  • Describing faults and folds and their relationships to tectonic forces
  • Describing technologies used to measure and forecast earthquakes and volcanic eruptions
  • SC2015 (9-12) Earth and Space Science
    7. Analyze and interpret evidence regarding the theory of plate tectonics, including geologic activity along plate boundaries and magnetic patterns in undersea rocks, to explain the ages and movements of continental and oceanic crusts.
    SC2015 (9-12) Earth and Space Science
    9. Obtain, evaluate, and communicate information to explain how constructive and destructive processes (e.g., weathering, erosion, volcanism, orogeny, plate tectonics, tectonic uplift) shape Earth's land features (e.g., mountains, valleys, plateaus) and sea features (e.g., trenches, ridges, seamounts).

    Local/National Standards:


    As a result of their activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop an understanding of

    • Energy in the earth system
    • Geochemical cycles

    Primary Learning Objective(s):

    Students will understand:

    • Plate tectonics.
    • Divergent, convergent, and transform motions of plates.
    • The causes for major natural phenomena such as volcanoes and earthquakes.

    Additional Learning Objective(s):

     Preparation Information 

    Total Duration:

    0 to 30 Minutes

    Materials and Resources:

    Food Coloring
    Paper Plates

    Split the batter from 1 cake box into 4 portions and color each with a different color.  Pour the first into the bottom of a 13x9 inch pan.  Tamp the pan on the counter to level and remove air bubbles.  Add the second color on top and tamp .  Repeat for the last two layers.

    Technology Resources Needed:

    Computer with access to the Internet



    Link the students to the following website to get an introductory idea of tectonic plate movement.  This can serve as background reading prior to the demonstration.

    The following is a flipchart that can be downloaded from PrometheanPlanet.  It will require a user ID and login, but costs nothing.  It requires ActivInspire to run, but this is also a free resource.


    Present the cake as a rough approximation of a flat planet Earth. 

    From the background reading students should recognize the United States Geological Survey image of major plates.  Bring this image up on the overhead projector. 

    Ask the students to describe the three types of plate movements; convergent, divergent, transform.


    Slice off 1/3 of the cake along the long axis. 

    Take the 1/3 section with both hands at opposite ends (long way). 

    Begin to pull apart.  Have the students pay attention to stress and strain on the internal layers.  Ask the students if they know what the result will be.  An example is sea floor spreading.


    Flip the remaining 2/3 of cake over and cut through along the long axis 3/4 of the way.  Flip back over.

    Grab with one hand on each long side and begin sliding your hands in opposite directions.  Pay attention to the damage done to the cake as you pull.  Ask the students what kind of natural phenomena might occur with this motion.


    Finish cutting into two pieces if the transform demonstration did not completely tear through the cake.

    Cut one of the long strips you just made in half.  When plates drift they will either run into each other and push up or the lighter (younger) plate will slide over the older (subduction). 

    Push the cut halves into each other to demonstrate the creation of a new mountain peak.  Pay attention to the colored cake layers as the mountain is created.  Ask the students to speculate about the layers of the rock of those mountains.  How can geologists use this information to study the surface of the Earth?

    Cut the last strip of cake in half.  Demonstrate subversion by sliding one piece under the other as they collide.  Volcanoes are very common with subversion.  Mariana Trench is the lowest elevation point in the world and comes from converging oceanic plates.

    Feed the cake to the students.

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    Assessment Strategies

    Give the students the following list and ask them to speculate about the type of plate movement that created it.

    Mariana Trench
    Atlantis Fracture Zone
    San Andreas Fault
    Rocky Mountains
    Himalayan Mountains
    Andes Mountains
    2010 Icelandic volcano eruption (Eyjafjallajökull)


    Find evidence of plate interactions.  Challenge students to uncover evidence of plate movement.  Search for mountain ranges, earthquakes, and volcano eruptions around the world.  Have them try to identify as many plate movement directions as possible.  Try to get them to use historical data rather than searches about specific plates themselves. 


    Bring in stacks of colored foam.  Let the students play with the foam in the same manner as the cake demonstration.  This should allow a more hands-on and less demonstrated solution.

    Each area below is a direct link to general teaching strategies/classroom accommodations for students with identified learning and/or behavior problems such as: reading or math performance below grade level; test or classroom assignments/quizzes at a failing level; failure to complete assignments independently; difficulty with short-term memory, abstract concepts, staying on task, or following directions; poor peer interaction or temper tantrums, and other learning or behavior problems.

    Presentation of Material Environment
    Time Demands Materials
    Attention Using Groups and Peers
    Assisting the Reluctant Starter Dealing with Inappropriate Behavior
    Be sure to check the student's IEP for specific accommodations.