Activity 2: Convection

Lyle Hercularis



Interactions between the crust and mantle cause earthquakes and varying landforms. Students will see how friction and convection currents move plates on a liquid surface.

Instructional Method: Demonstration

Goal: Present the concept of crustal plate movement due to convection currents.

Objectives: Students will be able to:

  • Diagram how friction and convection currents move plates on a liquid surface.
  • Describe in their own words how continents move.


Setup: 15 minutes
Activity time: 15 minutes
Discussion:15 minutes

Materials Needed:

  • Glass cake pan or aquarium
  • Water
  • Foam cut into continental shapes (map of continents PDF)
  • Heat source
  • Food coloring or colored syrup




We are most familiar with the crust, which is the layer of the earth on which we live. Surprisingly, it is the thinnest of Earth's layers. The crust ranges in thickness from 5 to 100 km, yet it represents less than 0.1% of Earth's total volume! The crust is ridged and brittle and when it cracks or moves, earthquakes occur. Earth's crust is divided into two types, continental and oceanic crust.

Continental crust is rather thick, about 35 to 100 km. It is the thickest beneath mountain ranges and plateaus. Oceanic crust underlies the world's oceans. Oceanic crust is thinner, about 5-10 km thick, and is more dense.

These two crust types are fragmented into a dozen or more large and small pieces known as plates. A single plate can be made of both continental and oceanic crust. These plates move relative to one another as they ride atop hotter, more mobile magma on the mantle. Plates are constantly in motion, although they move very slowly, only centimeters per year.

The mantle is approximately 2,900 km thick. It is semisolid and rocky, containing iron- and magnesium-rich rock, which makes it more dense than the crust. The mantle is where convection currents occur, and convection currents are responsible for plate motions. Although the mantle is solid it moves plastically, in the same way a pink pearl eraser bends.

Geologists believe that thermal convection cells in the mantle are the driving force behind plate motions.

Convection cells are places where extremely hot magma rises to the upper portion of the mantle, known as the asthenosphere.

Convection cells behave like a lava lamp. Cool liquid sinks to the bottom of the lamp, is heated by the light and rises to the top. The hot bubbles rise because hot liquid is less dense than cool liquid. As the bubbles reach the top, they cool and once again sinking to the bottom. The same heating-upwelling-cooling-sinking process happens in the mantle.

The rising and sinking material moves in a circular motion. This motion is what moves plates on the surface. Plates "stick" to the mantle due to friction, which causes them to move as the mantle moves. It is not known why convection cells form but it is known that they exist.

All of the knowledge scientists have of the mantle is the result of seismic and volcanic studies because we can't see the mantle anywhere. The following activity demonstrates both how convection works and how it drives plate motion.

Instructional Procedures:

A foam cutout in the shape of Africa, used in the first activity to show continental drift.
Continental foam cutout representing Africa. Used in the instructional procedures to represent continental drift.


  1. Place a glass cake pan filled with water on a stove or hot plate without turning on the heat. Arrange foam continents close together forming a large continent.
  2. Turn the heat on, directly below the floating continents. Watch the continents drift apart as the water begins to warm up. This is due to convection happening in the water.
  3. Remove the continents and let the water settle. While the pan is still over the heat place a few drops of food coloring or colored syrup in the water and allow it to naturally flow with the convection current.
  4. Draw on the board a sketch of how the colorant is being transported in circular patterns. Do not allow water to boil.


Explain that the foam pieces are moving due to friction between the water and foam. The water is rising and separating forming convection currents. Ask students what other fluids act the same way when they are heated (atmosphere?). Explain that the pull of gravity combined with the density of the inner earth appears to create the heat that drives convection. Consider how powerful convection in the mantle must be in order to move huge tectonic plates. There must be a lot of heat down there!


Wood cutouts of the continents can replace foam continents. If using wood remember to let wood dry after each use. Another way to see convection is to put cold cream into a cup of hot chocolate. Watch the surface of the liquid to see the upwelling cream.

Included National Parks and other sites:

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve
Bryce Canyon National Park
Denali National Park
North Cascades National Park
Point Reyes National Seashore


convection currents

Utah Science Core:

5th Grade Standard 2 Objective 1,2,3


Last updated: February 24, 2015

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