by Bob Stern, University of Texas at Dallas

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Animations are great ways to show Earth processes to students, but the quality of such animations is spotty at best (quality here refers to both the soundness of the science as well as the aesthetic quality of the animation itself). I am a university professor and I have been particularly disappointed in the quality of animations about subduction zone processes.

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Subduction is in many ways the most important solid Earth process.   Oceanic lithosphere is created at divergent plate margins (spreading ridges) and is destroyed at convergent plate margins, where it sinks back into the mantle in subduction zones. Sinking of lithosphere in subduction zones causes plate motions and is responsible for 3 great natural hazards – earthquakes, explosive volcanism, and tsunamis. Subduction also produces continental crust and important mineral deposits.

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I wanted to see if it was possible to improve on the quality of subduction zone animations, and so set about to build a team that could generate one for community college and lower division university students. The lack of high quality animations for this and other important solid Earth processes is partly because of the disparate expertise of geoscientists who know the science but have weak animation skills and digital artists and animators who have strong skills in showing objects in motion but are not experts in natural processes like plate tectonics.

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With a small 1-year grant from NSF we set about to generate a realistic subduction zone animation aimed at university undergraduate and community college student audience by first working within our university to rough out a draft animation and then contract a professional to use this to construct the final version. I teamed up with a talented geosciences graduate student and we reached out to faculty in our university’s School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication (ATEC). The ATEC faculty helped us recruit a pair of talented ATEC undergraduate students to work on the project. The geoscientists assembled a storyboard and we started in October to meet weekly with ATEC undergraduates to generate a first draft of the animation. While we were doing this, we drafted and revised the accompanying narrative. In May, we handed off the draft animation and narrative to a professional animator, Jeff Windler (Archistration CG) to generate the final animation. The animation was finalized in Sept. 2015 and is freely available on YouTube. We have assessment materials that we will gladly share, just email me at

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I will be giving a talk on the animation Tuesday Nov. 3 at GSA Annual Meeting in Session 243: T90. Undergraduate Geoscience Education and Research Opportunities Supported by NSF Funding Programs,  at 2:35 pm in Room 336.