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Contour Basics: JAVA Mac/PC

Steve Ackerman and Tom Whittaker, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Space Science and Engineering Center. Starting Point page organized by R.M. MacKay.

This resource received an Accept or Accept with minor revisions rating from a Panel Peer Review process

These materials were reviewed using face-to-face NSF-style review panel of geoscience and geoscience education experts to review groups of resources addressing a single theme. Panelists wrote reviews that addressed the criteria:

  1. scientific accuracy and currency
  2. usability and
  3. pedagogical effectiveness
Reviewers rated the resources:
  1. Accept
  2. Accept with minor revisions
  3. Accept with major revisions, or
  4. Reject.
They also singled out those resources they considered particularly exemplary, which are given a gold star rating.

Following the panel meetings, the conveners wrote summaries of the panel discussion for each resource; these were transmitted to the creator, along with anonymous versions of the reviews. Relatively few resources were accepted as is. In most cases, the majority of the resources were either designated as 1) Reject or 2) Accept with major revisions. Resources were most often rejected for their lack of completeness to be used in a classroom or they contained scientific inaccuracies.

This page first made public: Apr 10, 2006

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


The Contour Activity (more info) is a great on-line resource for introducing students to contour plots. The lessons:
  • start fairly easy and grow in difficulty
  • introduce students to basic techniques for generating contours
  • introduce students to the subtlties of generating contour plots with sparse data
  • provide many opportunities from students to assess their own progress and understanding.
  • are completely on-line and have on-line drawing capabilities. Hint: like with a pencil, you can make several short little lines as to where a particular contour should pass and then connect them with a smooth line.

Learning Goals

Context for Use

Although it is geared towards Atmospheric and Oceanic sciences students from all geoscience areas can benefit from working through these lessons.

Teaching Materials

The Contour Activity (more info) has all lessons. See Assessment section below for an additional activity that can be used to assess student understanding.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Warning: This is a great activity and seems to work on both Mac and PC. However older browsers may crash when trying to access the lessons.


Since the answers to all activities are included, an instructor might want to use a final assessment of how well students actually learned the material. Here is an map with temperature, dew point, and pressure data that may be printed out and given to students as a final assignment. Final Assessment with answer sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 1.3MB Apr10 03)

Other maps from different geoscience disciplines that may be more appropriate for your students can also be used here.

References and Resources


Geography:Physical, Geoscience:Oceanography, Geology, Atmospheric Science

Resource Type

Audio/Visual:Maps, Activities:Lab Activity, Classroom Activity

Special Interest


Grade Level

College Lower (13-14):Introductory Level

Ready for Use

Ready to Use:Meets Peer Review Standard:Anonymous Peer Review, Ready to Use

Earth System Topics

Geography, Atmosphere:Weather, Oceans:Ocean Basin Topography, Solid Earth


Ocean, Earth surface, Atmosphere


Teach the Earth:Teaching Environments:Intro Geoscience, Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Atmospheric Science, Oceanography

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