Directions for teachers:

Use the online Science News article “How the Earth-shaking theory of plate tectonics was born,” and the prompts below to have students explore scientific theories and determine the process behind creating theories. A version of the story, “Shaking up Earth,” appears in the January 16, 2021 issue of Science News. As a final exercise, have students discuss the definition of a scientific theory and compare it with hypotheses and scientific laws.

This story is the first installment in a series that celebrates Science News’ upcoming 100th anniversary by highlighting some of the biggest advancements in science over the last century. For more on the story of plate tectonics, and to see the rest of series as it appears, visit Science News’ Century of Science site at www.sciencenews.org/century.

Want to make it a virtual lesson? Post the online Science News article“How the Earth-shaking theory of plate tectonics was born,” to your learning management system. Pair up students and allow them to connect via virtual breakout rooms in a video conference, over the phone, in a shared document or using another chat system. Have each pair submit its answers to the second set of questions to you.

Thinking about theories

Discuss the following questions with a partner before reading the Science News article.

1. What does it mean to say that you have a theory about something? Think of a theory you’ve had about something outside of science.

Typically, when people say that they have theory, it means that they have an idea or philosophy. Student examples of theories will vary.

2. What is one scientific theory you have learned about this year in science? Explain what you remember about it.

Student answers will vary, but may include the general theory of relativity, evolution, etc.

3. How does the general use of the term theory differ from its use in a scientific context?    

Theories in science are explanations rooted in data. Having a theory outside of the scientific context may be based on observations or data, or the term may be used to state a logical idea.

The theory of plate tectonics

Read the online Science News article “How plate tectonics upended our understanding of Earth,” and answer the following questions individually before discussing them as a class.

1. What is the theory of plate tectonics? Over how many years was it developed?

The theory of plate tectonics states that the Earth’s surface is broken up into various pieces (plates) and describes how and why they are constantly in motion and how that motion is linked to features seen on Earth. The theory was developed over about 50 years.

2. Who helped develop the theory and what did they contribute to it? What types of scientists were they and where were they from?

Meteorologist Alfred Wegner proposed the idea of continental drift in 1912, and geologist Arthur Holmes added to that proposal years later with an explanation for how the continents might drift. These ideas were the precursors to the development of the theory of plate tectonics. From there, seismologists, geophysicists, mathematicians and physicists established the ideas, such as seafloor spreading, and found the data necessary to develop the theory. Notable scientists include Lynn Sykes, Harry Hess, Robert S. Dietz, Robert Parker, W. Jason Morgan and Dan McKenzie.  The researchers were from England and the United States.

3. Before the theory’s development, what were the conflicting lines of thought?

Wegner’s proposal sparked debates between mobilists, who supported the idea that the Earth’s surface was in motion, and fixists, who thought the Earth’s surface was static.

4. What did scientists need to resolve the conflict? Why did the conflict take so long to resolve?

In order to resolve the debate, scientists needed evidence. Wegner made his proposal in the early 1900s, but scientific evidence for why the continents move and how didn’t become available until after World War II, when technological advancements allowed scientists to study Earth’s surface and interior, and particularly the bottom of the oceans, in unprecedented detail.

5. How was evidence communicated to other members of the scientific community? Why was the communication important?

Evidence was communicated at conferences attended by scientists including geologists and geophysicists. By building on each other’s ideas and using each other’s data, the scientists were able to go beyond the idea of continental drift and come up with the unified theory of plate tectonics.

Defining a scientific theory

Discuss the following questions with a classmate.

1. Based on your answers to the questions above, how would you define a scientific theory?

A scientific theory is an explanation for how and why a natural phenomenon occurs based on evidence.

2. Think about a scientific hypothesis that you have written or look up an example of a hypothesis. How would you define a hypothesis? How is it different than a theory?

A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a scientific question that hasn’t been validated with evidence. A theory relies on evidence to explain phenomena, whereas a hypothesis is proposed before the gathering of evidence. A hypothesis can become a theory once it is proven or disproven with supporting evidence.

Possible Extension

What is a scientific law that you have learned about in school? Explain how a scientific law is different than a scientific theory. For more information, watch this Ted-Ed video called “What’s the difference between a scientific law and a theory?” by educator Matt Anticole.

Student answers will vary, but could include Newton’s three laws of motion, Bernoulli’s principle, etc. A scientific law is different than a scientific theory in that it describes and predicts the relationships among variables, whereas a scientific theory describes how or why something happens.

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