Wegener's Puzzling Evidence Exercise (6th Grade)

Although Alfred Wegener was not the first to suggest that continents have moved about the Earth, his presentation of carefully compiled evidence for continental drift inspired decades of scientific debate. Wegener's evidence, in concert with compelling evidence provided by post World War II technology, eventually led to universal acceptance of the theory of Plate Tectonics in the scientific community. The following files are needed for this exercise and can be downloaded in pdf format (Teacher Overview, (For Teachers) Wegener's Key to Continental Positions for grade 6, Student Puzzle Pieces, Key to Wegener's Evidence sheet, and Student Map of the World Today). If students need additional hints beyond those provided below, there is a Puzzle Outline Hint to be used as a base for the puzzle.


The Student Puzzle Pieces and Legend

Continents with fossils on them to cut out and piece together. legend of fossiles for connecting the puzzle pieces.

To start this activity the teacher will present background information on Wegener. Students will then be placed into groups of 2 to 3 and work to piece together continent cut-outs using this evidence. As students fit the continents together they find that isolated pieces of geologic information are no longer isolated. Groups describe what they have found, and must defend their conclusion by explaining how the evidence supports or refutes continental drift.

Time frame

1-2 class periods. Time frame can vary according to how much work is done in class and how much is done as outside assignments.

National standards references

The National Science Standards:

The National Geography Standards:

Links across the curriculum

Geography - reading and drawing maps
Social Studies - History of science researchers, climate/culture of scientific community at the time of the research
Language Arts - Writing persuasive essays, presentations


For teacher:

Wegener's Key to Continental Positions for grade 6 (can made into an overhead).
This Dynamic Planet Booklet.

For each student group:

Student Map of the World Today
Key to Wegener's Evidence sheet
Student Puzzle Pieces
Crayons or markers
Glue or tape

Reference to This Dynamic Earth and This Dynamic Planet

pp. 1, 5, 8-13; Includes the present positions and the shapes of the continents on the map at http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/dynamic/dynamic.html (online and as a pdf)

Content background for teachers

Instructions for activity

Briefly present background on Wegener. Stress that although others had recognized the fit of Africa and South America, it was Wegener who gathered other scientific data to support his theory.

Hints for Solving the Puzzle

  1. Have the students look for all the pieces with the fossil remains of Cynognathus and then put them together (South America and Africa).
  2. Then look for fossils that extend beyond the plate boundary such as the fern Glossopteris and the land-dwelling reptile Lystrosaurus. Put all of the continents with Glossopteris and Lystrosaurus near each other. Notice how two of the continents (Africa and Antartica) have the end regions of Lystrosaurus. Lystrosaurus is the key to solving the puzzle. What happens to the other continent (India) if you put Antartica next to Africa? The students must place India next to Africa to complete the puzzle.
  3. You can also use the Puzzle Outline Hint as a base for the puzzles.

Teacher answer key

It is okay if students don't get the "correct" answer or the same solution Wegener proposed as long as they can explain their thought process and how they used the evidence to arrive at their conclusion. There is much information missing from the picture. For example, ancient shorelines were not the same as they are today due to changes in sea level and the tectonic process (continents colliding and pulling apart, causing rocks to be added or torn off). Scientists still debate the fine details of paleogeographic (ancient geography) reconstruction. It is far more important to have students grasp the concept of how scientists look for clues, or evidence, and put the pieces together to solve a problem.

Students should understand that using the shape of the continents to fit them back together is using one type of evidence. Using the presence of the same type and age fossils is another. The presence of the same rock types is another form of evidence. Ask students if they can think of other types of evidence to search for that might be useful in solving their puzzle.

See also illustrations on pages 1 and 8 of This Dynamic Earth.

Assessment suggestions


Assign students to two groups, those who have determined that the evidence supports the theory of continental drift, and those who believe that the evidence does not support the theory. Have these two groups debate their positions. For an interesting twist, put students into groups opposite to their view.

Ask students to think about continental reconstructions older than 250 million years ago. What would be the difficulties in creating a paleogeographic reconstruction of the continents 1 billion years ago?

Additional resources

A good animation of plate movement over time can be found at http://www.scotese.com.