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Topographic Maps Inquiry Lab

In this lab, students will learn the concepts of topographic maps by using playdough or clay to make models to topographic maps. They will also learn how to read contour lines to determine how erosional features such as waterfalls, rivers, and runoff have impacted the land over time.

Each inquiry lab will contain an essential questions that will drive the lessons and make students think. For this lesson, the essential question is:

  • What are topographic maps and how do they provide evidence or erosional changes on Earth’s surface?


Students will begin the lab by reading the essential question and background information.  This can be done individually, as lab groups, or as a whole class.  Personally, I would do it in lab groups and then do some whole class formative checks before digging into the lab.

Materials List:

  • 1 can of playdough
  • Fishing line
  • Sheet of scratch paper
  • Ruler


During the topographic maps lab students will get to be kids again and make a mountain formation out of a can of playdough. Of course they have to remember tat they are doing this in a science class, so they are going to make sure that they take important information about their creation as well.

Students will have to create a side profile sketch rendition of their mountain and give as much detail as possible. Using a ruler, students will indicate height intervals that will help determine where they can take out cross sections of their mountains. As students take out sections, they will trace their sections creating their very own topographic map.


At this point in the lab, students will be checked for understanding by answering questions about their findings. Here are one that comes with the lab:

  • What are the lines on your map called?
  • What information do they give to people looking at a map?


Students will go back to the essential question and write a CER (Claim, Evidence, Reasoning) to conclude the lab.  Once completed, students will reflect back on their learning by answering the following questions:

  1. What is a topographic map, and what might it be used for?
  2. What do contour lines close together represent? Far apart?
  3. How might a topographic map help a scientists identify weathering and erosion occurrences on Earth’s surface?


All of the Kesler Science inquiry labs come with three different modification levels.  Each labs is differentiated using the icons below.



TEKS: 8.9C– Interpret topographic maps and satellite views to identify land and erosional features and predict how these features may be reshaped by weathering.


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