Southern Trails Project: Finding Ourselves Using Topographic Maps

Introduction. Developing a sense of place is important to the appreciation of where we are and where we come from. All too often, curriculum is disconnected from the familiar surroundings of the student thereby disconnecting the learning from place. This project attempts uses online resources to reestablish that connection to the surroundings and the curriculum while meeting demanding curriculum standards.

Project Summary. During this project, students will combine their social studies, science, language arts and math skills to take a look at where they are within the school, the county, the state and the world. Using both self-developed and Internet images, the students will develop a geographic sense of not only where they are but who they are.

Grade Level. K-8

Project Objectives. This project will allow students to build a geographic sense of place while learning about social studies, math, science, language arts and technology.

Subjects. Social Studies, Language Arts, Science, Mathematics, Technology

Activity 1 of 3: Finding Ourselves Mapping Activity. Using topographic maps available online, teachers will guide students through several lessons and activities related to the use of topographic maps and the location of the school, their community, and their place within the community (Grades K-3). The students take large scale topographic maps out to the playground and complete the following activities:

  1. Pace Counts: Pace count method is a means of measuring distance. For each person, the number of paces to walk 100 meters is different. By measuring how many steps it takes to walk a certain distance, you can then use your pace to measure other unknown distances. Have the students walk a predetermined distance (usually 25 or 50 meters) to see how many steps it would take. Then using the pace count method, the students can measure various distances on the playground, to the cafeteria, or to the library. Older students can then start working on conversion from steps to meters, computing the number of steps to other places, and computing travel time based upon their own walking speed.
  2. Terrain features: Terrain features are geographic land features that are all around us. They include ridges, hills, valleys, draws, depressions, and saddles. By identifying these features on the ground and on the map, students can develop a sense of terrain and an appreciation for the land around them. The simplest way to identify land features is by the use of a terrain model. By building the terrain model to match the topographic map example, students can see and touch the terrain features in a quick time span. TopoWeb's topographic map reading guide offers some useful information about terrain and contour elevation.
  3. Map orientation: This involves laying the map out in relation to the terrain and features on the ground. This is accomplished by locating features on the ground and features on the map. Linear features such as ridges, roads, streams, railroad tracks or high tension cables provide a quick frame of reference. Prominent terrain such as large hills, large buildings or cemeteries allow for easy orientation as well. To find maps or aerial photos of your local area go to either or MSN Terra Server.
  4. Compass Directions: This activity involves the use of a map, a simple compass and cardinal directions. The Charting the Course with a Compass site provides material about the compass rose, and the development of navigation. A simple way to determine direction on a sunny day and associate the direction with the location of the sun is to use the stick and shadow method for direction determination. Place a stick vertically into the ground and mark the tip of the shadow on the ground with a stone. Then wait 30 to 45 minutes and mark the second shadow tip with a stone. (The longer you wait the more dramatic the result.) The draw a line from the first point to the second point and this will give you an approximate East/West axis. The first mark will be the west end of the line and the second mark will be the east end. From this point you can then determine the north and south points. Then have students compare their directions with a compass and see how close they came. After this is accomplished, then have the students draw a compass rose incorporating the new directions that they have determined. This is an excellent sidewalk chalk activity for good weather.

Activity 2 of 3: Paths of Travel. Using the topographic map from an on-line source, students will examine the paths of animal, people and water through the local area.

  1. Transportation through the region. Using downloaded topographic maps, students will identify roads, rivers, train tracks and other transport routes through the local area. Students will then analyze and evaluate the impact of transportation on the local community. For grades 7 and 8, this activity can be ramped up to include statistical analysis of number of vehicles/ hour or evaluation of transportation on the settlement patterns within a community.
  2. How did we get here? This activity seeks to identify current and historic migration patterns through the local community. Both current generational level (oral interview/ research) and early settler level. (Internet sources) allow students the opportunity to identify migration patterns within the local, regional and national context. (Grades 6-8)
  3. Where does the water go? This activity will allow the students the opportunity to track the watershed movements through the local area. Using topographic maps, students will identify the local watershed areas by tracking the blue lines on the map. By following contour lines, the students can track the path of movement of water. Elementary students can focus on the water movement and the impact on the terrain. (Grades K-4)
  4. Down the Drain? Similar to the above activity, but for older students. Students will identify the source point and non-source point pollution potential along the watershed in their particular area. Point source pollution is pollution that can be traced to one particular point within the watershed. Examples of this would be factories, towns, dumps, or other specific locations that could pollute the watershed. Non source point pollution is pollution that cannot be traced to a single geographic point. Examples of this would include that the runoff from streets and parking lots, the seepage of improper septic systems or the runoff from fertilizers used in the fields from farming operations. (Grades 5-8)
  5. Future settlement. How do we fit more people in the local area? Urban planning and growth patterns are identified. Students will look at census data online and track county population through the last 50 years. The will develop charts using excel and show how population has changed over time. They will then project future population growth and plan for that future growth. (Grades 5-8)

Resources for this Activity:

Activity 3 of 3: Electronic Time Capsule. Using the archival and preservation techniques of electronic portfolios, students will leave an electronic time capsule for the class three years from now, for themselves and for the school archives (Grades K-8).

  1. Scan and save class photos, important newspaper headlines, and such throughout the year to a CD.
  2. Allow each child to have their own folder on the CD so that individualized items may be saved. Students may select copies of their best work, notes about school, awards or 4H ribbons. Children should have specific assignments to add to their folder as well. Examples include, "What I did this summer", "What I got for Christmas", "Special memories of the school year" etc.
  3. At the end of the year, the student gets their own copy of the time capsule with their folder of preserved school material to look at in the future (their personal time capsule).
  4. The whole class capsule will be recorded to a separate CD and preserved until three years from the beginning of school.
  5. At the end of that three years, the CD Time capsules would be stored in the library for the "School Archive"
  6. This product could be used as a tool to introduce the project and share "tribal history" within the school. The next year, the process repeats without digging up the school yard or leaky containers.

Resources for this Activity:

Please Register. To continue providing free Web resources and lesson plans, the federally funded SEIR*TEC group must document the number of teachers using its materials. Please register if you intend to use this lesson plan by e-mailing your name, e-mail address, school name, and location, to Jeni O'Sullivan ([email protected]).