Image courtesy John Brock of the United States Geological Survey and Wayne Wright of NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility  

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Teachers know that not every student learns in the same way.  Some learn best by listening; others by reading; and still others by doing. An effective way to help students master Earth’s landforms and cultural features involves tactile learning in the form of 3-dimensional maps that students construct themselves.

Constructing a 3-D Map

a) Divide the class into small groups. Provide each group with a large sheet of Styrofoam and a similar size outline map of the region to be mapped. Secure the outline map over the Styrofoam with poster pins. Then instruct students to use a pencil point to transfer the shape of the region onto the Styrofoam by puncturing the outline of the map.

b) Next, have students spread clay within the outline they have made on the Styrofoam. If the students are creating a topographic map (a map that shows elevations and physical features), they will need to select different colors of clay to represent different elevations.  For example, they might choose green clay to represent elevations near sea level; yellow and red clay for higher elevations; then brown and gray clay for the highest elevations. As the clay is applied, they will need to make the layers increasingly thick to show the changes in elevation and shapes of landforms.

c) When all landforms are complete, students can roll blue clay into thin strands to show rivers and thin sheets to show major lakes, coastal waters, and oceans.

d) Have students complete their maps by identifying rivers, mountains, lakes, and oceans with small stick-on labels.

Extending the Activity

Students can apply the same techniques that they used in constructing topographic maps to create different types of maps.

a) Three-dimensional maps can be used for learning other spatial patterns on Earth, such as climate zones, cultural realms, and economic regions.

b) Students can learn the geography of the United States by creating 3-D maps of the entire country or of individual states.

This activity is based on a idea submitted by Lorraine Stepanek,
St. Mary’s of the Lake School, New Buffalo, Michigan


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