Map and Compass Skills: the STEAM and Physical Education Connection




Introduction: Map and Compass Skills: the STEAM and Physical Education Connection

Developing activities that happen to involve science, art, engineering, mathematics, and/or technology may or may not align with STEAM. The correct way to develop STEAM lessons/activities/projects is to start with the standards for a particular grade level and then to develop the lesson/activity/project.

This learning project addresses the following standards:


Apply Newton’s Second Law to compass and map skills (pacing and speed).


Solve problems in ways that leverage the power of technology (declination and geocaching).


Develop a model (3D topographic map) to generate data for testing (compass and map skills).


Organize and develop artistic ideas and work through the development of a project (3D topographic map).


Solve problems involving scale drawings of geometric figures and reproducing a scale drawing at a different scale (paper map and 3D topographic map).

Physical Education

Explains the use of Newton's Second Law to compass and map skills (pacing and speed).

Demonstrate compass and map skills (read a compass, read a map, take a bearing, follow a bearing).

Explain the strategies used in compass and map skills (route choice).

Participate in moderate to vigorous physical activity (physical activities and geocaching).






Items to mark locations (paper plate, rocks, etc.)

Compass (see step 1)

Lego 32x32 baseplate

Legos (variety of plates and bricks)

Step 1: Secure or Make a Compass

Secure a compass (photo 1)

Note: If you don't have access to a compass or compass app on your phone then you can always make a compass. Conduct a search using "make compass" at Instructables for a variety of simple ideas for making a compass out of everyday items.

Review the names of the different parts of the compass (photo 2).

Step 2: Orientate and Read a Compass

Orientate the Compass

Hold the compass steady in your non-dominant hand with the base plate level.

Hold your non-dominant hand in front of your body near your stomach.

Read the Compass

Position the "N" with the travel arrow.

Turn your body until the magnetic needle lines up with the travel arrow (you are facing north).

Physical Experience

Experiment with positioning directions with the travel arrow.

Turn your body until the magnetic needle lines up with the travel arrow.

Step 3: Get Map and Mark It

Get a Map

  1. Go to USGS Topographic Maps (
  2. Select a map that has a variety of elevations
  3. Download the map (downloading is free)
  4. Select a four segments area
  5. Print the map

Mark it to Scale

Draw a 32x32 grid (see photo 1) over the map. The actual scale for these USGS Topographic Maps are marked on them. This scale says 1" equals 63,360" or 5280 feet or 1760 yards.

Note 1: I printed my map at 6" x 6" and my horizontal and vertical lines were at 1/16" (.1875") intervals to match 32x32 grid.

Note the Altitude

Label each cell on the topographic map with the altitude (I abbreviate 3000 as 30, 2100 as 21), so that the numbers would fit in the cells (see photo 2).

Step 4: Create a 3D Topographic Map

The 3D Topographic Map (photos 1-7) is made out of legos. Start with a 32x32 baseplate. Note the lowest point on the topographic map (mine is 1900') and the highest point (3300'). 1900' is at the baseplate and every 100 feet in elevation adds 1 plate. The high point is 14 plates high. Remember one brick is 3 plates, so bricks also may be used. I used the trans plate (see photo 8) to mark the north west corner of the topographic map.

The representation of the 3D Topographic Map, for our purposes, is 3200 feet by 3200 feet so that the distance between any two horizontal/vertical lego studs is 100 feet.

Step 5: Determine and Set Declination on the Compass

Maps show true north or map north, the point at which all meridians of longitude meet in the northern hemisphere.

Compasses show magnetic north or compass north, the point at which all magnetic lines merge in the northern hemisphere.

Magnetic declination is the difference between true north and magnetic north expressed in degrees. The degrees of declination change as you move east or west. The degrees of declination are printed on the bottom of a topographic map.

For our purposes we will use the declination of our current location. My declination is 10 degrees east. Notice how I have rotated the back plate of the compass so that the direction arrow points to 10 degrees instead of 0 degrees (see photo 1).

In order to find the declination at your location, perform a Google search on declination and your location.

Step 6: Take a Bearing

Position the 3D topographic map so that its northwest corner is at the northwest point using the compass (photo 1).

Find the lowest and highest elevation on the paper map.

Locate the lowest and highest elevation on the 3D topographic map.

Take a bearing on the highest point from the lowest point.

  1. Stand so that the compass is over the lowest point.
  2. Position the compass facing the highest point (see photo 2).
  3. Match the magnetic arrow with the baseplate arrow (see photo 3).
  4. Read the bearing at the travel arrow.

Practice using other locations on the map.

Step 7: Determine Pacing

Mark off 100 feet.

Start at one end and walk naturally to the other end.

Be sure to walk in a straight line.

Repeat three times

Count the number of paces each time.

Average the number of steps to determine your pace.

Calculate the distance between the lowest point and the highest point. For example, if there is a distance of 12 studs horizontally and 12 studs vertically - the distance is 24 studs or 2400 feet.

Calculate the number of steps that you would be required to walk to cover the distance. For example, is you your pace was 50 steps for 100 feet then 50 X 2400 = 120,000 steps.

Step 8: Follow a Bearing

Rotate the dial so that the bearing (see photo 1 - 200 degrees) is lined up with the travel arrow.

Rotate your body so that the magnetic arrow is matched to the arrow on the baseplate.

Walk forward.

Step 9: Route Selection

It is often better to go a little out of the way on a flat path than to move in a straight line.

For the start and finish (see photo 1) example, it would be better to go around the mountain instead of over the mountain.

In this example, the route should be mapped out on the paper topographic map. Specific points along the way should be noted and bearings determined. Then, as you travel keep taking new bearings in order to follow the route.

Step 10: Orienteering Activities

The activities below may be completed using your 3D topographic map or physically practiced at home.

Follow Bearings

Select a start position (on the 3D topographic map or near your home).

Take a 60 degree bearing.

Walk 10 steps.

Take a 30 degree bearing.

Walk 15 steps.

Take a 40 degree bearing.

Walk 20 steps.

What is the relationship between where you started and where you finished?

Orienteering Route

Mark four paper plates or other objects (small pieces of paper) with 1, 2, 3, 4.

Create a route by laying out the paper plates on the ground near your home or the small pieces of paper on your 3D topographic map.

Record the bearings from start to number 1, number 1 to number 2, number 2 to number 3, number 3 to number 4, and number 4 to the finish on a sheet of paper.

Partially cover the paper plates or pieces of paper.

Have a partner complete the route or even complete your own route.


Geocaching is an activity where folks leave small prizes at various locations which are noted online at:

Find a prize at a location near you.

Use a map to determine the exact location for the prize.

If the opportunity presents itself, go in search of the prize.

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    2 years ago

    Great activities, well explained, but as a former physics teacher I can see no application whatsoever of Newton's Second Law. Otherwise, good effort.


    Reply 2 years ago

    The acceleration of an object as produced by a net force is directly proportional to the magnitude of the net force, in the same direction as the net force, and inversely proportional to the mass of the object.
    The object in this case is the person.
    The force is the muscular force.
    The mass relates to the person.
    How does one move more quickly from location to location?


    Reply 2 years ago

    I think you are kidding yourself if you think that this in any way communicates the meaning of the second law to your students, even qualitatively.
    I taught high school for thirty years, taught teachers, and chaired conference and curriculum committees for various physics educators' professional organizations(STAO, AAPT, CAP and AAAS), as well as being a curriculum consultant. And yes, I know argument by authority is weak, but I know what I'm talking about.
    As I say, it's a great activity, but by implying that a kid will absorb some sense of the real meaning of the Second Law as a result is, I think, a bit optimistic.
    OTOH we wouldn't be teachers if we weren't optimistic.
    Join AAPT, subscribe to The Physics Teacher, and plug in to their resource materials. Their conferences are immensely valuable and a great deal of fun.


    Reply 2 years ago

    It is not the point to teach Newton's Second Law - but to apply it - I do respect your opinion


    2 years ago

    This is awesome! I taught a section on Urban Orienteering last year with students and it was a blast. Our lesson plan also included getting students public transit cards, and teaching them to read bus maps as well. We set 3 locations, and divided students into three groups. 1 group was in charge of getting us to each location - that they learned about directly before we had to go. They needed to start with the city size transit map, then decide which individual bus line maps they needed to ask me for.