Introduction: Topographic Relief Models

About: I am an enthusiastic scientist and amateur engineer sharing my passions with students for the past thirteen years. I believe that the challenges ahead are never as great as the science within and work to enab…

Maps are everywhere! We see them on phones, at bus stations and the first pages of fantasy novels. But maps, especially topographic maps, can be challenging to decipher. This Instructable builds skills in reading topographic maps through the creation of a relief model.

Layers of cardboard create elevation changes on the model, while tracing the outline of pieces generates the contour lines of the topographic map. Both map and model are built simultaneously producing an accurate 2D representation of a 3D model. The finished project makes it easy to recognize how contour lines represent Earth's features.

I've used this project successfully for the past twelve years with middle-level students in an earth science class. It is appropriate for most students ages 12-adulthood studying geography. The lesson works well in a formal science or social studies curriculum, but would also be excellent in an informal setting such as scouting or after-school STEM program.

The project helps develop the concepts of system models, scale and proportion (key crosscutting concepts of the NGSS). It is a good starting point for constructing explanations for how geoscience processes have changed Earth's surface at varying time (MS-ESS2-2 of the NGSS). By the end of construction, students can read topographic maps, identify features found on good maps, can relate Earth's features to scale models, and have greater skill in visualize 3D features from 2D information. The project fits into a larger unit on mapping the earth and precedes units on erosion and mountain forming.

This project does involve sharp knives, hot glue, paper mache and paint. It's messy to say the least, and young students will need adult supervision.

This Instructable has been created for the "Teachers" contest. I've utilized the 5E lesson plan format (so it might look a bit different from other Instructables - more 5E info here) and have included the handouts and grade rubrics I use with students. This Instructable has been adapted from Teach with Topographic Maps by Van Burgh, Lyons and Boington published by NSTA 1994.


  • Heavy drawing paper or construction paper
  • Pencil, ruler, and eraser
  • Single-walled cardboard
  • Snap utility knife
  • Hot glue
  • Newspaper
  • Paper mache paste (I like Elmer's Art Paste, but homemade works fine)
  • Acrylic paint
  • Colored pencils
  • Craft glue
  • Sphagnum moss or clump-foliage (model building supply)
  • Sticks, small pebbles, sand, foam and or Realistic Water for adding details
  • Matte Spray Finish

Optional for adding a 3D printed cabin or house

  • Computer or Chromebook with access to TinkerCad
  • 3D printer

Step 1: Engage: Brainstorm a Map to an Imaginary Place

You're a dreamer. You're an inventor, sculptor, planetary geologist and cartographer. You're America's bravest explorer, most brilliant engineer, most renowned architect and a pretty good cook. And you've been asked to pan and design a cabin up in the mountains.

Take out a piece of scratch paper and draw a rough map of your cabin location. What features does the area have? Are there trees? Grassy planes? Forested areas? A rocky crag that looks like a skull? Add anything that makes this realistic or cool place to build a cabin.

There are some features your sketch must have. Mark an area for your cabin the size of your pinkie nail, draw a road leading to your cabin, and include a water-feature (stream or small pond).

** A note on location. I use the nearby Little Belt Mountains as a reference location when teaching this unit to my students. But it can be adapted to other locations. I've even had kids create landing sites on Mars (but other than designing space craft, the models weren't nearly as fun to make... or look, more red rocks).

Step 2: Explore: Actual Topographic Maps

It's time to explore actual topographic maps. The U.S. Geologic Survey produces many types of maps of the United States showing mineralogy, hydrology and topography. You can access the topographic map data base through this link where you can download maps or buy printed maps for study. Maps may also be available through the Forest Service, Fish & Game, Ag Extension Office or other government agencies.

As you examine the map, try answering the following focus questions:

  • What do you notice about the contour lines? Do they ever cross?
  • How are forested areas marked? What other symbols are used?
  • How are streams shown on the map?
  • How is elevation indicated?
  • How are the tops of hills marked?
  • What does it mean when lines are close together? What about far apart?

Step 3: Explain: the Features of a Topographic Map and Steps to Building a Model

Here are some important characteristics we need to know about contour lines and topographic maps:

  • Contour lines represent all points of one elevation. The contour interval is the elevation change between two adjacent line and is the same for all lines on a map (for example it might be 10 feet).
  • A darker line marked every fifth line is used to make counting the lines easier.
  • The tops of hills are marked by closed circles. High points are marked with a small cross.
  • Contour lines never cross - that would indicate two different elevations have the same elevation and result in run time errors, the end of space-time and all sorts of weird. (If you are a teacher, pay close attention to this, students tend to cross their lines).
  • Streams run through the points of deep "v" shapes with the tips of the "v" pointing upstream.
  • The relief of the area will determine the line spacing. Steep mountainsides, canyons and cliffs feature closely spaced contour lines. Flat or gently sloping areas have widely spaced contour lines.
  • Depressions are marked with a closed circles marked by short dashes pointing down into the depression.
  • Caves... Kids always want to know about caves... Dashed contour lines that pass under solid contour lines of higher elevation indicate caves. Caves appear to break the "never shall they cross" rule of contour lines but are dashed.

If you're teaching this project, it is at this point I formally introduce what we will be building and how they will be graded. I've attached two files: 1) a prompt giving an overview of the project, 2) a grading rubric detailing how students will be assessed. Feel free to modify the files to meet the needs of your classroom.

It's time to improve our initial cabin map and make it a topographic map.

  1. Start with a sheet of drawing paper (I use 9x12 construction paper, the size will dictate the size of the final model). Draw a 1/2" border on each of the edges.
  2. Use a blue color pencil to draw a curvy stream or small pond.
  3. Pick a spot for your cabin. Generally we build on flat areas.
  4. Start making contour lines. Remember to make deep "v" shapes that point upstream and use closed circles to indicate the tops of hills. Use at least seven elevation changes

Don't get too detailed on this draft of the map - it's going to get cut apart in the next step.

Step 4: Elaborate: Cut the Cardboard Layers

It's time to start building our cardboard relief model. If you used a 9"x12" paper with 1/2" borders like I did, your map area will be 8"x11". Make your first layer but cutting a rectangle the same size as your map area.

If you're teaching this with younger students, it's a good idea to involve some extra adult supervision. Ask a parent to come in for the day - many will love being invited to visit a classroom. I also demonstrate how to hold the knife, keeping a cutting board underneath their work and generally being safe.

With your base cut, it's time to start carving out the surface features. Cut off the 1/2" board of your draft map and the lowest level represented by your contour lines (usually where your stream exits the map area). Get a new piece of cardboard and trace this shape. Stack this newly hewn piece onto your base to create your second level of elevation.

**Important teacher note** Students have the tendency to just cut apart the spaces between contour lines and end up with something that looks like a cardboard jigsaw puzzle. Make sure they cut out the whole elevation and build a model that stacks.

Continue cutting the lowest elevation from the map and then cardboard to match the remaining map area. You may end up with two or three areas as you work your way up in elevation.

Step 5: Elaborate: Trace and Create the Final Topographic Map

With your cardboard elevations cut, it's time to recreate the topographic map. Start with the same sized drawing paper and a boarder if you used one before. Lightly trace the cardboard pieces onto the paper recreating the draft map with any changes that may have occurred while you were cutting.

You can add details to the map. I use an approximate 1:1200 scale on these maps and models. Roads are about 12m wide, meaning roads should be less than 1cm wide on the map. Cabins should have an area of less than 2 square centimeters. Streams are generally less than 1 cm wide. I have my students start their lowest elevation at 1260m and use 3m intervals to mark the contour lines - this isn't really to scale, but it's difficult to use an accurate vertical scale and make the relief model look good.

Draw a legend in one corner and include a compass rose. Give your map area a title and write the date you've created it. Draw in a scale or include the ratio 1:1200.

Once you've added map features in pencil, go over the lines in black pen and then erase the pencil marks. Color forested areas green, buildings red or pink, yellow for roads, and streams or ponds blue.

Step 6: Elaborate: Glue and Paper Mache the Relief Model

With the cardboard traced, the layers can be glued together. A small blob of hot glue will make quick work of it.

Use newspaper and paste to cover the cardboard relief model. Be sure to wrap the edges and smooth over the cardboard elevation changes. It helps to press a groove into the cardboard where the stream runs. It takes at least three layers of paper mache to cover the model well.

Allow the paper mache to fully dry.

Step 7: Elaborate: Paint and Decorate the Relief Model

With the paper mache dry, it's time to paint. I strongly suggest working from some reference photos. Fields of grass are a lot more yellow than green. Forests often have brown tones, and streams are clear and not blue.

I recommend laying down a layer of medium brown over the whole map first. Then use a dark brown in areas that have trees and a muted yellow green in grassy areas. Put down gray or tan in the stream bed and road. Use the same gray or tan to color rocky outcrops. Dry brush the grassy areas with an earthy yellow ochre. Finish by painting the sides black.

Once the paint is dry, use glue to attach small pebbles in the rocky areas, small sticks for a bridge that is needed, and sand to add texture to areas. Forested areas can be created by mixing some pine green paint and glue with moss and "planting" it down on the map or using commercial model making foliage.

Step 8: Optional: Add a 3D Printed Cabin

In the past I've had students create cabins for their models by carefully cutting small 1 cm cubes of rigid foam insulation and adding a prism on top for a roof. That's a workable solution to adding a cabin, but if you have access to a 3D printer, students can produce far more detailed and interesting cabins.

I have students use TinkerCAD, a free online CAD program. I create a class and assign each student a username. Students login and complete the starter activities. From there they can start designing their cabins. It works best if these building are solids (rather than being open interiors). The students a pretty quick to pick it up and will turn out barns, outhouses, garages, people, animals and trucks. I limit them to two buildings and no living critters (too small to print well).

From TinkerCAD, I download the students' .stl files and use my slicer software to scale their building. If you keep the scale from the map, these houses need to be printed so that a single story is 5 mm high. That was pretty small and student's were less than impressed. I'd forgo accuracy and print single stories at 12 mm high. That's big enough to see without overpowering other features of the map. I also print a larger version of their cabin (40-60mm high) that they can take home

After the house is printed, add some paint and glue it to the map.

Step 9: Evaluate: Questions for Reflection

If you are completing this project as an individual, you might step back and reflect on your work. How did you do? Does your relief model look realistic? Does you map match up well to your model? How has your understanding of map making changed? What techniques or ideas can you apply to other projects?

If you are a teacher using this project as part of a class, it's fun to put all of the relief maps together on a table, shuffle the topographic maps and see if you can match the map to the model. I repeat the activity during parent teacher conferences. Have students reflect on their work.

I use the attached rubric to assess the students and provide feedback. I've also included an informational sign I display with the finished projects.

There are many opportunities to make this project a co-curricular activity. The social studies teacher I work with taught mapping at the same time we addressed it in science, and we divided the topics between our classrooms. Using TinkerCAD and the 3D printing of the house could be part of a technology curriculum. Students could be reading wilderness survival books in an ELA class and the topographic maps could be used as scenes in the story (Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain come to mind).

I hope you enjoyed this project and found a way to use it.

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