Students develop an understanding for contour lines and contour intervals as they build their own topographic map. This quick activity, which consists of two sections, can be done in one class period. The first section involves building and mapping a mountain. During the second session, groups try to recreate another groups mountain using only the topographic map as a guide.
Students should be allowed 5 to 10 minutes to build a mountain using 1 container of Playdoh. They can be as creative as they like; however, the more complex the design, the tougher the map. As soon as they are done building, begin the mapping process. To cut each section, use the thread to “wrap” around the area making a clean cut. After cutting each section with the thread, lay it on paper and trace around the perimeter. Continue cutting and mapping until the mountain is done. After each group is done, stack the pieces and hide the mountains in a secret place! Have the groups trade maps.
Using the second container of Playdoh, students should try to recreate the original mountain using only the topographic map. My students have some difficulty getting started, but loved the challenge. As an assessment, compare the original to the copy. Have the students evaluate their mountain building and map making skills.
Playdoh (2 containers per group), thread (50 cm long), paper, and a little imagination
This activity is a wonderful introduction to topographic maps. After completing this activity, my students had fun trying to read topographic maps of our area. I found maps at the courthouse and had a few donated by local developers.
- Build your own mountain using 1 container of playdoh.
- Divide your mountain into 8 even sections from the base to the top of your mountain. You may want to use your pencil to make a mark at each division.
- Use a piece of thread to cut off the bottom section. Place it in the rectangle and carefully trace around it. Continue cutting and tracing until you have mapped the mountain. Mark the peak of your mountain with an X.
- Stack the pieces to recreate your mountain. Do not destroy your mountain. Give your mountain to your teacher to “hide”.
- After everyone is finished, trade maps with another group and attempt to make their mountain using the topographic map and another container of playdoh.
- Compare your copy to the original. Were you close? Why or why not?
Student Worksheet: Playdoh Mountains (pdf)
• Check out the USGS website on topographic maps for more great ideas as well as a list of symbols used on topographic maps. This website provides teacher tips and information for topographic maps.
• Also visit TerraServer for topographic and aerial maps of your area!
Earth Science Lesson Plans at The Science Spot