Introduction to Topographic Maps

Mark Bowen
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
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Initial Publication Date: November 21, 2014


This exercise introduces students to topographic maps and some of the information presented on them. Students must use basic map reading skills as well as algebra to work with map scale, measure distances, and calculate gradients.

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The activity is used in an undergraduate introductory physical geography course that includes a 2-hour laboratory session that meets once per week. The course is predominantly composed of non-majors.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Basic algebra

How the activity is situated in the course

This is the second exercise completed in the course. It is a stand-alone exercise that reinforces concepts introduced in lecture.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Map scale
Calculating distances with graphical vs. representative scales
Calculating gradients
Constructing topographic profiles
Interpolating contour lines based on elevation points

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

This is a relatively basic map reading exercise designed to emphasize the analysis of a landscape using a topographic map. Students are provided with a 7.5' USGS topographic map and they are expected to work in pairs to complete the exercise. They must first examine the information presented in the map margin. They are then asked to visually examine the map and then conduct a series of mathematical calculations, including measuring distance between two points and calculating gradient. Students are then asked to construct a topographic profile along a transect passing through a lake basin. Finally, students are given a diagram with elevation points and they are asked to draw/interpolate contour lines.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students complete the exercise during a 2-hour laboratory session. Students are expected to work in pairs. Upon completion of the laboratory exercise, students must complete an online quiz that consists of the same questions in the exercise before the next lab meeting. The online quiz is within the Desire 2 Learn (D2L) online learning platform, so answers are automatically graded and imported into the student's grade book.

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