Pangaea Puzzle

Type of Lesson: Hands-on activity and discussion

Time Needed: 45 minutes, or one full class period

National Standards Addressed

Earth and Space Science, Grades 5-8: The solid earth is layered with a lithosphere; hot, convecting mantle; and dense, metallic core.

Earth and Space Science, Grades 5-8: Lithospheric plates on the scales of continents and oceans constantly move at rates of centimeters per year in response to movements in the mantle. Major geological events, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and mountain building, result from these plate motions.

Earth and Space Science, Grades 5-8: Some changes in the solid earth can be described as the “rock cycle.” Old rocks at the earth’s surface weather, forming sediments that are buried, then compacted, heated, and often recrystallized into new rock. Eventually, those new rocks may be brought to the surface by the forces that drive plate motions, and the rock cycle continues.

Earth and Space Science, Grades 9-12: Movement of matter between reservoirs is driven by the earth’s internal energy and external sources of energy…

Earth and Space Science, Grades 9-12: Interactions among the solid earth, the oceans, the atmosphere and organisms have resulted in the ongoing evolution of the earth system. We can observe some changes such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on a human time scale, but many processes such as mountain building and plate movements take place over hundreds of millions of years.

Unifying Concepts and Processes, Grades K-12: Models are tentative schemes or structures that correspond to real objects, events, or classes of events and that have explanatory power.

Quick Summary of Lesson

This is a fun, easy way to explain plate tectonics and the various formations of the Earth's surface throughout history. It also shows why maps are distorted.


fine tipped, permanent marker
sharp knife
student activity sheet (optional)


1. Each group of two should start with half a potato, cut lengthwise. Now, the students should cut the potatoes into eight pieces as shown in the pictures.
2. Use the marker to write numbers on the peeling side of each piece.
3. Carefully peel away the white part of the potatoes from each puzzle piece, being sure to leave each piece of peeling in tact.
4. One of the students in the group should mix up the potato pieces and then the other student should put the puzzle back together. Then the 2 partners can switch roles.
5. Have students answer the following questions either in class discussion or have the pairs write their answers down using the Student Activity Sheet in the next section:

  • Why don't the pieces fit together correctly? Which is better, a map or a globe, and why?
  • Is there any significance to the numbers on each piece? Do they represent something?
  • The puzzle is a good representation of the world many years ago. How would it look today? If the pieces move, what causes the movement?
  • What are some phenomena that are directly related to the forces which drive the plates?
  • Student Activity Sheet

    Please click here for student activity sheets. All activities on the Windows to the Universe site may be printed and reproduced if being used for educational purposes.

    Notes to the Teacher

    The resulting curved pieces will cover a greater flat space than did the hemisphere. This is an excellent illustration of the principle that the only true map is a globe; when you try to place the pieces on a flat surface, they don't fit. Gaps appear between the pieces, and if this were a map, these gaps would represent the map distortions.

    Even numbers (2,4,6,8) represent Northern Hemisphere land masses. Odd numbers (1,3,5,7) represent land masses mostly in the Southern Hemisphere. Pieces 2, 4, and 6 represent Laurasia and pieces 3, 1, 5, 8, and 7 represent Gondwanaland.

    Students love the challenge of a puzzle. You can point out to them that the numbered pieces represent the historical position of today's land masses. As well, the potato pieces are relatively proportional to present-day land masses.

    The crust of the Earth including the continents is made of "plates" which are linked together like a jigsaw puzzle. These solid, but lightweight plates "float" on top of the fluid layer underneath, where the hotter magma is found. And so these plates move about 2 inches per year. Just some of the phenomena associated with the forces that drive the plates are seafloor spreading, subduction, volcanoes, faulting and earthquakes.

    Need More Information? Try Using Windows to the Universe

    Please use these links for further ideas or more information:
    Earth's Crust and Lithosphere
    Earth's Plate Tectonics
    Interior/Surface of Earth Quickie Questions
    Seafloor Spreading
    Surface Features of the Earth
    A View of Where the Continents Used to Be
    Last modified February 26, 2007 by Lisa Gardiner.
    The source of this material is Windows to the Universe, at from the National Earth Science Teachers Association (NESTA). The Website was developed in part with the support of UCAR and NCAR, where it resided from 2000 - 2010. © 2010 National Earth Science Teachers Association. Windows to the Universe® is a registered trademark of NESTA. All Rights Reserved. Site policies and disclaimer.