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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 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.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

  • Learn how to draw contour lines from limited data.
  • Extend this knowledge to real data sets.
  • Terms: isopleth, gradient, interpretation of the data,

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