Introduction: Using a Topographic Map to Teach Transportation STLs (Grades 9-12)

Transportation involves the use of and connections between a lot of different sub-systems, with a few examples being highways, waterways, trains, etc.

With this project, students will build a “topographic” map based on research about types of transportation, and will compare different types of transportation, safety, and industry with one another, using guiding questions provided by the instructor. For example, you could ask your students what states have the most highways? Which have the most waterways? Do the same states with lots of highways have lots of trade? Is the prevalence of agriculture indicative of more trade? Are the number of waterways and the number of trains related? etc.

The map shows the differences in quantity of modes of transportation or industries via having some states on the map be represented as taller than others, based on a scale or percentage. If you'd like to get really creative, you can make it a puzzle, where you swap pieces in and out to get a better look at the relationships between industry and modes of transportation.

Eventually, students will be able to research statistics, model them, print the models, and have graphical representations of a few of the different types of transportation.

This project addresses these high school (grades 9-12) STLs:

  1. STL 18-J: Transportation plays a vital role in the operation of other technologies, such as manufacturing, construction, communication, health and safety, and agriculture.
  2. STL 18-K: Intermodalism is the use of different modes of transportation, such as highways, railways, and waterways, as part of an interconnected system that can move people and goods easily from one mode to another.
  3. STL 18-L: The design of intelligent and non-intelligent transportation systems depends on many processes and innovative techniques.


  • Access to a web browser for research
  • The two attached deliverable files
  • SOLIDWORKS or another solid modeling software (Fusion 360 and Inventor are good free alternatives for educators and students! Tinkercad is a simpler, browser-based option that is free as well.)
  • 3D Printer (optional)
  • PLA Filament (optional) ($10.25 per 220g: most map prints end up being between 60-80 grams of filament, provided you use 10-20% infill)

Total Cost: ~$3 per print, but free if you decide to represent your information digitally

Step 1: Download Deliverable

Before you get started on this project, download the attached .obj or .sldprt deliverable, the map file. This map is of the southeast United States (West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama, and Kentucky.) With this map, students can add their name, the date, a title, and change the height of each individual state within the map (although this information doesn't always 3D print correctly on some printers.) Currently, all of the states are extruded 5mm high, while the map's base plate is extruded 10mm high, so that the differences between the base-plate and the states are clearly visible. The photo of the lime green map, attached, is representative of the visible difference in extruded height between the base plates and the states.

Step 2: Pick a Topic

For this step, assign half of the individuals or small groups of students a topic related to transportation and half related to an industry topic. If you have a need for more topics, also consider health and safety related topics. As stated on the 180th page of the third edition of ITEA's Standards for Technological Literacy handbook, consider including discussions about pollution, congestion, accidents, and fuel consumption for the health and safety portion.

Transportation examples include:

  • Total number of highway miles per state (this is the example that we used to better explain this process!)
  • Number of commercial ports per state
  • Total number of bridges per state
  • Number of airports per state
  • Total number of train miles per state

Industry examples include:

  • Number of mines per state
  • Gross revenue created by manufacturing plants in a particular state
  • Number of farms per state
  • Number of hospitals per state
  • Number of people employed in the trucking industry per state

Health and safety examples include:

  • Number of highway fatalities per state
  • Number of weigh stations per state
  • Price of gas per state
  • Average commute time per state
  • Pollution per state, etc.

Step 3: Find Percentages

Once you have a topic assigned/selected, encourage students to compare their topic across all states, finding the percentages that each state makes up of the total. In this example, we compared the total number of interstate miles that each state has. As you can see, Kentucky has 12% of all interstate miles out of the 10 states in the Southeastern US. Once we have these numbers figured out, we can move on to the next step!

Step 4: Modeling the Map

Once you have all of the percentages calculated, you can adjust the extrusion height of each individual state! Since the map base starts at 10mm thick, represent 0% of the total as 10mm, and then represent each individual percentage point as 1mm. In this example, since Kentucky has 12% of the total interstate miles, it is extruded 22mm high. Be sure to finish all ten states. Once you finish modeling the entire map, edit the title block to include your name (or names,) class, the title of the map, and the scale. Be sure to save the file as a .stl if you plan on printing it!

Step 5: (Optional) Print the Map

If you plan on printing the map, be sure to save the file as a .stl in the last step. With a .stl file, upload it to a 3D printing software like Cura, make sure you have the correct settings selected, load up your desired filament (I recommend PLA,) and get printing! The highway miles example, printed above in neon green MakerShaper PLA filament, took approximately 4.5 hours to complete with a 10% infill. I did end up needing to scale the map down to 40% of its total size so that it could fit on the 6" x 6" Lulzbot Taz Mini 2 3D printer that I used, so keep bed size in mind when printing your own maps!

Step 6: Compare Maps

Have the students compare all of the maps from the class, whether the physical models or digital solid modeling files. Help them consider outside factors that might contribute to the percentages that they've found: state size, states being landlocked v. having ocean access, population density, etc.

Encourage students to reflect on these questions:

  • Are there any trends that you can see across maps?
  • Are there any states that have more of one type of transportation than another type?
  • Are there any industries that correlate with types of transportation, according to these maps?