Using Topographic Maps

Scott Linneman
Western Washington University
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Initial Publication Date: April 30, 2008 | Reviewed: November 3, 2013


Group exercise requires students to use topographic maps to try to answer three local geologic problems involving alluvial fans, alpine glaciers and coastal landscape.

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Early exercise in lower-division geomorphology course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Some familiarity with reading topo maps.

How the activity is situated in the course

We usually do this exercise in the first three weeks of a 10-week quarter.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

After completing this lab, students should be able to:
1. Given any topographic map, be able to locate and describe the major components of the map, such as the quad name, fractional scale, bar scale, contour interval, magnetic declination, date of publication, date of topographic base information;
2. find the altitude, within a contour interval, of a given point;
3. find the horizontal distance and vertical separation between two points on the map;
4. calculate an area on the map (using the digitizer);
5. calculate the slope of a given surface;
6. draw a topographic profile across any area of the map, or draw a stream profile;
7. map and measure the drainage basin for a point on a stream or river;
8. develop hypotheses of the origin of certain geomorphic relationships expressed on a topographic map (and test them!);

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Formulation of multiple hypotheses and selection of data to test hypotheses.

Other skills goals for this activity

reading maps, using digitizer (to measure lengths and areas), making profiles, writing short reports

Description of the activity/assignment

Each group of three students must use topographic maps to try to answer three local geologic problems involving alluvial fans, alpine glaciers and coastal landscapes. The students must read background information, develop hypotheses, make measurements using topographic maps to test the hypotheses.
Designed for a geomorphology course
Addresses student fear of quantitative aspect and/or inadequate quantitative skills

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students submit a report for each investigation that must include (as separate paragraphs):
1) a brief introduction to the problem (including your hypotheses)
2) a description of the methods you employed to test your hypotheses
3) a description of the results of your measurements (including an error analysis)
4) and a short discussion of your findings relative to your hypotheses.

The text for each write-up must be on one page (single spaced, 11 pt font, 1 inch margins). The report may have as many figures (maps, profiles, graphs, etc) as needed, but they should be cleanly drafted, clearly labeled (with a caption explaining what each shows), and numbered (Figure 1, Figure 2, etc).
Student reports are graded using the "Topo Lab Grading Rubric" included below.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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