Mountain Building (6-12)
Lesson 5: Location and Setting: Plate Tectonics and Mountains

Activity 2

Plate Boundaries and Mountain Formation

Materials / Preparation


Groups of two

Teaching Tip

This activity should take one to three class periods.

Students must be familiar with plate tectonics and the geologic processes at work at convergent and divergent boundaries. The Plate Tectonics Lab, Part 1 and Part 2 provides teaching materials on this subject. Or, you may want to have your students explore Plate Tectonics : A Continuous Process as a way to review; accessible from the Mountain Building Student Web Page.

If you have a projection device available, it may be helpful to familiarize the students with the maps before they begin their work.


  1. Explain to students that the location of the mountains will help us to learn more about mountains.
    a. Begin the activity by asking students to recall the three types of mountains we have studied thus far. Folded, fault block and volcanoes
    b. Review how and where folded mountains are formed: compression at convergent plate boundaries
    c. Review how and where fault-thrust mountains are formed: tension at divergent plate boundaries
  2. Now let's explore where volcanoes are formed. Provide copies of the Volcano Map, the Seismic Map, and Plate Boundary Map, or have students view them online - they can be accessed from the Mountain Building Student Web Page. Point out the three types of plate boundaries. Students should compare the location of the volcanoes and the location of the plate boundaries.
    a. Where to most volcanoes occur? along plate boundaries
    b. Which types of plate boundaries have volcanoes? While many volcanoes are near convergent boundaries, be sure to point out the volcanoes near ALL 3 types of plate boundaries.
    c. To reinforce the connection between plate boundaries and volcanic activity, have the students take a look at the Seismic Map and compare with the location of the plate boundaries.
  3. Have students compare the location of the mountains that they mapped on page 27 in their Mountain Building Journals to the map this Plate Boundary Map. Have students notice where each mountain is in relation to plate boundaries and what type of boundary (convergent, divergent, or transverse).
  4. Before we continue the investigation, have students complete the questions on page 29 of their Journals. Note: This could be assigned as homework before continuing the investigation in class the next day.
  5. Discuss the possible reasons why some mountains do not occur near plate boundaries.
    NOTE: There are 3 different answers to this, of roughly equal importance. (1) As plates move around over geologic time and plate boundaries change, mountains may end up far away from the boundary where they originally formed . (2) The mountains result from hot spots. Two of our mountains are explained that way (Fernandina, Mauna Loa). (3) Mountains formed from erosional processes do not need to form near plate boundaries; they can form anywhere there are rivers (this is the case for the two buttes).
  6. Explain to students that there are two other types of mountains that we need to examine before we proceed. The first is called a batholith. (Note: A batholith can form a mountain (by erosion); but it doesn't always.)
    a. Have students look in the Mountain Photo Archive; there are two batholiths: El Capitan and one other. Torres Del Paine
    b. Discuss with the students what the characteristics of batholiths are (see Teacher Background Information for Lesson 5).
    c. On page 30 of their Journals, students should record which mountains they think could be batholiths and explain their reasoning.
    d. Have students look closely at El Capitan on their map. Is it near a plate boundary? ( It's close, but not very close).
  7. Have students look again at the Mountain Photo Archive. There are two buttes: Mitten Buttes of Monument Valley and one other. Hopi Butte
    a. Discuss the common features. Common features are isolated, steep-sided, flat-topped
    b. What might explain these features? Erosion
    c. Where are these mountains located? Arid regions. Are they near plate boundaries? No
    d. Do they need to be near plate boundaries? No - because erosion happens everywhere
    e. Have student complete the information on page 31 in their Journals.
  8. Students now have sufficient information to complete the Mountain Data Table (page 32) in their Journals. Have them do so for each of the mountains in the Mountain Photo Archive. You may want to go through one of the mountain together as a class. Then allow the students to work in teams to complete the rest.


Have the students complete the Mountain Diagnostic Table on page 33 in their Journal. This will provide you with a demonstration of their understanding as well as a tool for the student to consolidate the information needed for writing the description for their National Geographic Photo Journals to be completed in Lesson 6. (Key provided in the Mountain Building Journal: Teacher's Guide)


Students can label a world map with the major mountain ranges and correlate them to current and past plate boundaries.

Resources used

Mountain Photo Archive

Seismic Map

Volcano Map

Discovering Plate Boundaries: Downloads (Maps)

Plate Boundary Map

Plate Tectonics Lab, Part 1

Plate Tectonics Lab,Part 2

Plate Tectonics: A Continuous Process

Mountain Building Journal

Mountain Building Journal: Teacher's Guide