Hands-on Activity: Drifting Continents

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

An illustration by Antonio Snider-Pellegrini of the Opening of the Atlantic Ocean in 1858 depicting continental drift.
An illustration depicting continental drift.
Copyright © Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Antonio_Snider-Pellegrini_Opening_of_the_Atlantic.jpg


This activity is a teacher-led demonstration of continental drift and includes a math worksheet for students involving the calculation of continental drift over time. Students will understand what continental drift is, why it occurs, and how earthquakes occur because of it.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Engineers study the motion of fluids and how the differences in temperature and density can affect natural forces such as air flow, ocean currents and continental drift. Engineers investigate continental drift to understand what causes earthquakes so they can build structures to withstand these natural disasters. For all engineers working with data and equations, it is extremely important to label values with the correct units so the resulting calculations are correct.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Use observation to explain natural phenomenon.
  • Understand the concept of continental drift and be able to describe convection currents.
  • Relate a model demonstration to real life processes.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth's surface at varying time and spatial scales. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Add, subtract, multiply, and divide decimals to hundredths, using concrete models or drawings and strategies based on place value, properties of operations, and/or the relationship between addition and subtraction; relate the strategy to a written method and explain the reasoning used. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Convert among different-sized standard measurement units within a given measurement system (e.g., convert 5 cm to 0.05 m), and use these conversions in solving multi-step, real world problems. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Analyze and interpret data identifying ways Earth's surface is constantly changing through a variety of processes and forces such as plate tectonics, erosion, deposition, solar influences, climate, and human activity (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop and communicate an evidence based scientific explanation around one or more factors that change Earth's surface (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each class should have:

  • Glass Baking dish (approximately 9" x 13")
  • Approximately 2 cups cool water
  • Balsa wood continents (should be pre-cut by adult)
  • Blue food coloring
  • 4-6 dictionaries or large books
  • Sterno® can or small warming candle in a fireproof holder
  • Calculators for each student (for Drifting Continents Math Extension Worksheet)
  • Fire extinguisher (located nearby in the room)
  • Literature book: The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth, by Joanna Cole & Bruce Degen


Convection currents are movements of a liquid that occurs when there are differences in temperature and density. Continental drift is part of the theory of plate tectonics, which describes the movement of the Earth's crust on a river of molten rock. Each continent, like North America or Australia, has its own tectonic plate. Geologists believe that the tectonic plates are floating on the molten rock of the mantle and moving around very slowly. The continual slow movement of the plates subsequently causes movement of the continents— called continental drift.

Engineers need to know about continental drift in order to understand how earthquakes are caused and what they can do to build structures that withstand earthquakes. Today, we are going to look at what continental drift is and how temperature changes can move the continents. This will help us understand how earthquakes happen.


Before the Demonstration

  • Purchase a thin sheet of balsa wood at a craft store. Trace each of the Earth's continents on the balsa wood, and cut out with a utility knife of X-acto®. The shapes need only to be approximate.
  • Check out Joanna Cole's The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth from the school or public library.
  • Make appropriate number of Drifting Continents Journal Pages and Drifting Continents Math Extension Worksheet (if desired) for students so that each student has one of each.

With the Students

  1. Read aloud The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth as a means of activating prior knowledge about Earth processes.
  2. Pass out journal pages. Explain to students that they will be graded on how well they record the demonstration.
  3. Explain to students the theory of continental drift and plate tectonics. Explain that scientists theorize that convection currents of molten rock in the mantle of the Earth cause the tectonic plates of the earth to move. Students can enter the new vocabulary words for the activity (continental drift, convection currents, plate tectonics) in the Vocabulary section of the journal page.
  4. Instruct students to record their observations of the activity. An observation is anything that stands out as important. Tell them all engineers record their observations during their own (or while observing others') activities.
  5. Place the baking dish on two piles of books that are equal in height and high enough and far enough apart to place a fireproof plate and Sterno® can or warming candle under the baking dish.
  6. Pour cool water into the baking dish.
  7. Float the balsa wood continents, bunched together in the center. They should be directly above the heat source. Make sure the table is very still, so that the water does not move.
  8. Carefully light the heat source.
  9. Drop a few drops of blue food coloring into the water (using caution to drop it into the water, not onto the wood continents).
  10. The heat source should slowly heat the water in the middle of the baking dish. The food coloring will help students observe the movement of the water.
  11. The continents should slowly drift apart as the water heats.
  12. Have the students record what they learned and any additional questions they may have under the appropriate sections of the journal page. Go over journals and collect them to be graded. Use the following rubric to grade the journal entry: one point for each completed section, and an extra point for an excellent job.

Drifting Continents Math Extension

How far do the continents drift in a year? How about in a hundred years?

  1. Pass out Drifting Continents Math Extension Worksheet (attached).
  2. Hand out calculators.
  3. Complete the first row of the worksheet as a class and have students finish the rest of the worksheet on their own.
  4. Have students complete the worksheet table by calculating speed multiplied by time.


Safety Issues

Permission should be obtained from proper authorities, i.e., Administrators, Fire Marshal, etc., before this demonstration is performed. It is advised that at least one other adult be present in the room in case of any accidents.

The fire extinguisher should be readily accessible for use by the teacher in case of accidental fire. Do not allow students to get too close to the open flame.

Make sure to use an oven proof (i.e., can withstand the extreme heat of the flame) glass baking dish that will not shatter when heated.

Troubleshooting Tips

It is pertinent that the table and water are extremely still before lighting the heat source; otherwise, the water will move and the continents will drift apart without the addition of heat.

The longer you let the water heat up, the better the demonstration! With warmer water, the food coloring will move at a more dramatic rate.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Journal: On the attached Drifting Continents Journal Page, have students enter the three new vocabulary terms for the lesson, continental drift, convection currents, and plate tectonics, into the Vocabulary section of the journal. Ask students if they know what the terms mean. If they do not, define the terms together.

Activity Embedded Assessment

Journal: Have students record their observations of the activity. Tell them all engineers record their observations and that an observation is anything that stands out as important. Ask students to write in anything they have learned or questions that they come up with throughout the demonstration.

Post Activity Assessment

Math Extension: Have the students complete the Drifting Continents Math Extension Worksheet.

Model Drawing: Have the students make a drawing of the continental drift demonstration. Use blue-colored arrows to show the movement of the water and red arrows to show the movement of the continents.

Activity Extensions

Have the students explain continental drift in terms of the model. Have them write a paragraph about what continental drift is for their parents, siblings or friends.



Cole, Joanna. The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth. New York: Scholastic Books, 2003.


Jessica Todd; Melissa Straten; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: August 10, 2017