Granite Helps Scientists Piece Together Rodinia

If you’ve taught plate tectonics at the middle school level, you’re probably quite familiar with the supercontinent Pangaea. But did you know that Pangaea was not the only supercontinent in earth’s history – just the last to date? Millions of years before Pangaea, another supercontinent known as Rodinia united all of earth’s landmass in an unusual configuration. While we tend to think of Pangaea as the “starting point,” earth’s land and ocean basins have been continually shaped throughout geologic time through a supercontinent cycle.

While Pangaea certainly gets more press, Rodinia was the star of an article in the July 11, 2008 edition of Science. As summarized in a National Science Foundation News release, John Goodge’s team was collecting geologic specimens in the Transantarctic Mountains when they discovered a single granite boulder atop Nimrod Glacier.

Andrew Barth (L) and Devon Brecke (R), collecting glacial moraine samples in the Miller Range of the Transantarctic Mountains. Photo courtesy of John Goodge, University of Minnesota.

Subsequent chemical and isotopic tests indicated that the boulder was strikingly similar to a belt of igneous rock running through the southwestern United States. These similar chemical and isotopic signatures provided support for the SWEAT (southwest United States East Antarctica) hypothesis, which states that East Antarctica was connected to the southwestern United States approximately one billion years ago, as part of the global supercontinent Rodinia.

The supercontinent Rodinia as it began to break up approximately 750 million years ago.

At the heart of Rodinia was Laurentia, or the precursor to most of North America. Debate exists, however, on whether East Antarctica, Australia, Siberia, or South China fit with the western margin of Laurentia. This geologic discovery provides three lines of evidence in support of an East Antarctica – Laurentia connection.

Researchers theorize that about 600-800 million years ago, a portion of Rodinia broke away, gradually drifting southward to become eastern Antarctica and Australia. This movement just predates the Cambrian explosion, a rapid diversification of life and sudden appearance of complex organisms. Goodge explains that “there are ideas developing about these connections between the geo-tectonic world on the one hand and biology on the other.” It is possible that the shifting and colliding of continents, erosion, and influx of minerals and chemicals into the ocean may have provided nutrients to support a growing diversity of organisms.

Connecting to the National Science Education Standards

As with a discussion of Pangaea or plate tectonics in general, this article provides an opportunity to meet the Earth and Space Science standard’s various concepts. According to the National Science Education Standards, “The idea of systems provides a framework in which students can investigate the four major interacting components of the earth system – geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and the biosphere. In this holistic approach to studying the planet, physical, chemical, and biological processes act within and among the four components on a wide range of time scales to change continuously earth’s crust, oceans, atmosphere, and living organisms.” The holistic approach described in the NSES is reflected in this study’s use of geologic evidence to explain an important biological phenomenon.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson

Rather than spark a new lesson, this current event provides an opportunity to revisit a familiar unit on plate tectonics, geologic time, and rocks and minerals. Most teachers include a discussion of Alfred Wegner and the evidence for his theory of plate tectonics, including similar fossilized plants and reptiles found in South America and Africa.

After students understand how Wegner used geologic and fossil evidence to reconstruct Pangaea, present the evidence from this most recent discovery. Ask them to explain how the same type of granite could be found in eastern Antarctica and the southwest United States. Once students conclude that the two continents must have been connected, re-examine a diagram of Pangaea, which shows an African-Antarctic connection, not a North America-Antarctic one. How, then, could these two places have similar rocks?

A reconstruction of the supercontinent Pangaea. Image courtesy of Kieff via Wikimedia.

Referring to geologic time may help at this point. Using a modified time scale, remind students that Pangaea existed approximately 200 million years ago, while earth is approximately 4.6 billion years old. What did earth’s surface look like before Pangaea? Lead students to the conclusion that other supercontinents, like Rodinia, existed well before Pangaea. Introduce the concept of the supercontinent cycle.

This type of discussion naturally progresses to the mechanics and processes driving the cycle: plate movement. The following resources from the Middle School Portal can help you teach about earth’s interior and plate tectonics. It may also be helpful to brush up on concepts related to geologic time, as these processes span millions of years.

Geologic Time: Eons, Eras, and Epochs

Plate Tectonics: Moving Middle School Science

Once students understand plate interactions (rifting, subduction, sea-floor spreading), take a global view. Using a world map, plot the locations of plate divergence and convergence. Challenge students to predict what the next supercontinent will look like. For example, current plate movement indicates that as the Atlantic Ocean basin grows, the Pacific Ocean basin is shrinking. In the future, western North America may be connected to Asia in the earth’s latest supercontinent. This story from NPR, Amasia: The Next Supercontinent?, tells the possible story.

Introducing Rodinia as part of a greater supercontinent cycle presents plate tectonics as a driving force in a long-term pattern of constructive and destructive forces. It provides another opportunity for students to consider the cyclic change: a fundamental principle in science.

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at This post was originally written by Jessica Fries-Gaither and published July 24, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 2/8/12 by Jessica Fries-Gaither.

When Did the Grand Canyon Begin to Form?

South Rim, Grand Canyon. Image courtesy of Kimberly Lightle.

This blog post draws from several news sources —, The New York Times, and Science Friday. All these sources have stories and photos related to a study published March 7, 2008, in Science by researchers Victor Polyak and Carol Hill (free registration is required to view this article). Science Friday features a 15-minute audio clip of an interview with Polyak. The research suggests that the Grand Canyon began forming 17 million years ago. However, for the past 100 years or so, geologists have agreed, based on a robust data corpus, that the Grand Canyon is probably five to six million years old, even though the rock from which it is carved is up to two billion years old. So what have Polyak and Hill done to upset this long-held theory of the Grand Canyon’s age?

To put it simply, they gathered new data and analyzed it using new technology. That is, they gathered rock samples called mammillaries from caves. These mammillaries are associated with ancient water tables and suggest previous levels of the water table. Polyak and Hill then analyzed these samples with improved rock-dating technology involving the radioactive decay of uranium to lead. The Grand Canyon began forming 17 million years ago at the western end in a west to east direction, and at a rather slow rate. Some time later, the east end of the Grand Canyon began forming from east to west, at a much more rapid rate. Eventually the two ends merged and the Colorado River emerged.

However, some scientists suggest Polyak and Hill’s methods and interpretations may be too narrow or incomplete. For example, their assumption that all the mammillaries examined originated in an ancient water table may not be a safe one. One critic noted that springs do occasionally emerge from the canyon walls and they could produce mammillaries as well. Another point of contention deals with the lack of 17-million-year-old sediment, which would be evidence of a 17-million-year-old river. Hill counter-argues that such sediment may not exist because the scale of the hypothesized 17 million-year-old, western river system would not produce sizable amounts of sediment. In addition, river erosion tends to destroy such potential evidence.

How to Turn This News Event into an Inquiry-Based, Standards-Related Science Lesson
Estimating the age of the Grand Canyon is related to the History and Nature of Science, Science as Inquiry, and the Earth and Space Science content standards of the National Science Education Standards. With respect to the first two standards, several themes emerge. The researchers proposed using improved laboratory techniques and new data sources to make an estimate of the age of the Grand Canyon. In this way, they demonstrated the idea that science advances with new technologies. Science also seeks disconfirming evidence to existing theories as a means of gaining increased certainty regarding what we know about the natural world. If scientists fail in their attempt to find disconfirming evidence, they have succeeded in strengthening the existing theory. If they find disconfirming evidence of existing theories, then they pave the way to new lines of research, which must be further investigated. Eventually, existing theories may be either supplanted or revised in light of the new evidence, or they may be strengthened should the new evidence turn out to be unreliable or invalid.

The news sources related to this research also provide “air time” for scientists who argue alternate interpretations of Polyak and Hill’s data and who point out that Polyak and Hill may be ignoring some facts that impact their conclusion. These presentations underscore the role of argumentation and evidence based logic in advancing scientific knowledge as well as the social nature of science.

Ask your students if they know how old the Grand Canyon is. Ask them if they imagine someone knows, even if they don’t. From here, the discussion is going to go in one of two directions: (1) If they imagine someone knows, how do students imagine the someone knows how old the Grand Canyon is; what kind of evidence might have been used? Entertain all student contributions and stipulate that the students provide some justification for their response. You may need to do quite a bit of guiding and scaffolding here to lead students to support only evidence-based and logical responses. (2) If students imagine no one really knows, ask why not; what prevents human beings from knowing?

Depending on your students’ background knowledge and context you can relate the discussion to a variety of instructional goals and learning objectives. Do you want to emphasize the nature of science, evidence-based argumentation, and the social aspects of doing science? Then choose excerpts from Science Friday’s interview, which highlight these aspects in the context of real scientists doing real science and devise discussion questions for your students to reflect upon in order to increase their awareness of the nature of science.

Maybe you want to highlight some methods of science like rock dating. Perhaps you can use this opportunity to illustrate how new questions can emerge from gathering evidence intended to answer another question, as is illustrated in the final paragraph of the story.

Or maybe you want to give students practice with science literacy. Put students in small groups and give each group one of the three sources listed in the first paragraph of this blog. Devise two or three open-ended questions for each group to discuss and reach consensus. Have the students jigsaw into new groups and share the consensus of their first group. How does each student now understand the issue of determining the age of the Grand Canyon? How does this issue intersect with the bigger idea of the nature of science?

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at This post was originally written by Mary LeFever and published March 14, 2008 in the Connecting News to the National Science Education Standards blog. The post was updated 11/16/2011 by Kimberly Lightle.

Newest Issue of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle Highlights the Science of Climate Study

Scientists recording data on Sperry Glacier. Photo courtesy of glaciernps, Flickr.

The just-published issue of the free, online magazine Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle gives K-5 school teachers a unique opportunity to introduce the science behind weather and climate change to young students with engaging lessons and proven reading strategies.

Each issue of the magazine takes its theme from one of the widely accepted principles of the climate sciences. The theme of the September 2011 issue is “We Study Earth’s Climate.”

Designed to integrate science and literacy instruction for educators in K- grade 5 classrooms, this and earlier issues provide background articles on the related science and literacy topics and their connections to the elementary curriculum. Science and literacy lessons to use in the classroom become a part of unit plans for grades K-2 and 3-5 and are aligned with the national standards for science education and English language arts.

An original story, titled  How Do We Study Climate?, gives young listeners and readers chances to use their comprehension skills on informational text. The story is available at two reading levels and in three different formats.  Selected children’s books on climate and weather are highlighted in a bookshelf feature.

Two articles are devoted to teaching young people to evaluate information from web sites and to use video clips from agencies that work with weather satellites, balloons, and buoys to learn about data collection.

Readers are welcome to add their ideas and suggestions on articles by leaving comments. They can also easily share and bookmark content by using the embedded AddThis buttons.

Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and produced on the campus of The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio.  All past issues of the magazine are available from the homepage of the magazine.

Kimberly Lightle, director of digital libraries in OSU’s College of Education and Human Ecology, School of Teaching and Learning is the principal investigator of the project as well as a contributing writer. Jessica Fries-Gaither is the project director of Beyond Weather and the Water Cycle as well as the award-winning sister publication, Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears.

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We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at Post
updated 12/07/2011.

Earthquake Resources

With the recent earthquakes in Colorado and Virginia it seemed timely to share some of the previous blog posts and other Middle School Portal 2 (MSP2) resources on earthquakes and plate tectonics. The US Geological Survey website tells us that earthquakes are occurring all the time, but it is both their intensity and the depth at which they occur that determines the effect and damage they can cause. The site also has a very interesting FAQ section on earthquakes. In addition, the MPS2 Resource Guide on Plate Tectonics is an excellent primer on this subject with many high-quality resources. Also, you may want to revisit a previous blog post on this subject related to the earthquake in Japan entitled Disaster in Japan.

Project Earth – Making the World a Smaller Place

Project Earth is a global networking website for K–12 educators and the public designed to connect people around the world to help solve environmental problems. Its mission is to generate ongoing conversation and collaboration across national boundaries that collectively lead to positive environmental change. Registration is required and member teachers/schools/classrooms are able to showcase their innovative environmental projects, connect and interact with ecologically-minded people around the world (from Minnesota, to Los Lagos, Chile, to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia!).  Teachers and students also have the opportunity to participate in environmental contests and earn recognition for efforts.

Last year, Project Earth’s World Environment Day Contest drew winners involved with environmentally conscious projects such as studying how plastic bags affect our environment, and growing food for a school kitchen and composting the waste. Submissions to the 2011 contest are due May 15th. A great project idea for your classroom!

A few  other resources to tap into on this topic include the MSP2 resource guides on Technology and the Environment, Populations and Ecosystems, and Oceans, Climates and Weather.