Topographic Maps

Kyle Fredrick
California University of Pennsylvania
Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: May 23, 2008 | Reviewed: November 3, 2013


This exercise is a lab exercise to introduce elevation, landforms, and topographic maps to Introductory-level students. It is used to convey the principles of land variability and the processes that shape the Earth's surface.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This exercise is used in my Introduction to Geology course (EAS 150), typically the first Earth Science course most students have had. It is a general education course, but also is the first in the sequence required for Geology and Environmental Earth Science majors. (See the course profile for this course.)

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students need not have any particular skills mastered before approaching this exercise. It is designed as a warm-up exercise for lab exercises later in the semester in which topographic maps are used extensively.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is the second lab in the sequence of 12 to 14 exercises through the semester. It follows the introductory lab on the Scientific Method.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The goal of the exercise is to demonstrate topographic maps as models of the Earth's surface. It teaches them to read maps based on symbology and format, as well as the site-specific variables they might find across regions.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

The lab increases critical thinking skills. It also helps to develop the ability to visualize and conceptualize in three dimensions from two-dimensional space.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students are encouraged to work in groups. They also get reinforcement of mathematical concepts like distance, scale, and slope/gradient. They are introduced to the idea of interpolation and contouring.

Description of the activity/assignment

The topographic map exercise uses tools that the students may have had some exposure to, surface maps, and forces them to view it in a more critical manner. They are asked to use maps of different types and representing different landscapes to answer a series of questions. It teaches them to identify the information the map provides and to read the topographic contours to understand how they relate to the real-world surface. The principles of interpolation and contouring are addressed as students create their own topographic map from a set of elevation points. Students are introduced to the idea of a topographic profile, which they will be using throughout the course in later lab exercises and field experiences.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Student responses are graded objectively and subjectively on a 10-point scale. Their assignments are evaluated on clarity of their responses, correctness of interpretations, and completeness of their map and profile.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs