A Contouring We Go

By Kathleen Lee, November 15, 2006

Grade Level

  • High School


  • Urban Planning

Subject Area

  • Language Arts
  • Mathematics
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Technology

Lesson Time

Three to five fifty-minute class periods


This 5 day lesson is intended to further develop the students’ understanding of the built environment and infrastructures of their community. The students will learn how to construct contour equipment, use the equipment, and compare the results to current topographical maps of the same area. The lesson should focus on the highest hill in a park or area of town near the school. The students will construct a contour map of this hill in class.

National Standards

  • Understand numbers, ways of representing numbers, relationships among numbers, and number systems
  • Specify locations and describe spatial relationships using coordinate geometry
  • Analyze characteristics and properties of two and three dimensional geometric shapes
  • Apply appropriate techniques, tools, and formulas to determine measurements
  • Understand measurable attributes of objects and the units, systems, and processes of measurement
  • Recognize and apply mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics
Social Studies
People, Places and Environments
  • Refine mental maps of locales, regions and the world that demonstrate understanding of relative location, direction, size and shape
  • Create, interpret, use and synthesize information from various representations of the earth, such as maps, globes, and photographs
  • Use appropriate resources, data sources and geographic tools such as aerial photographs, satellite images, geographic information systems, map projections, and cartography to generate, manipulate and interpret information such as atlases, data bases, grid systems, charts, graphs, and maps
  • Calculate distance, scale, area, and density, and distinguish spatial distribution patterns
  • Describe, differentiate, and explain the relationships among various regional and global patterns of geographic phenomena such as landforms, soils, and climate, vegetation, natural resources, and population
  • Describe and compare how people create places that reflect culture, human needs, government policy, and current values and ideals as they design and build specialized buildings, neighborhoods, shopping centers, urban centers, industrial parks, and the like
  • Examine, interpret and analyze physical and cultural patterns and their interactions, such as land use, settlement patterns, cultural transmission of customs and ideas, and ecosystem changes
  • Analyze and evaluate social and economic effects of environmental changes and crisis resulting from phenomena such as floods, storms, and drought
  • Propose, compare and evaluate alternative policies for the use of land and other resources in communities, regions, nations, and the world

Common Core Standards

Anchors for Reading:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7 Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.10 Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Range of Writing:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Anchor standards for Speaking and Listening: 

Comprehension and Collaboration:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.5 Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Anchor standards for Language:

Conventions of Standard English:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.2 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation, and spelling when writing.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.


Students will be able to:
  • construct contour equipment for use in the chosen park or area of town
  • acquire land elevations of a given area
  • explain what contours are and why they are important to the built environment
  • construct a model of the contours they created from their field studies and compare them to contour maps created by modern equipment
  • make connections to the importance of contouring to community infrastructures



  • computers with Internet connections
  • drill
  • wood
  • string
  • foam board or cardboard boxes
  • glue tracing paper
  • box cutters
  • bolts, nuts, and washers
  • clear plastic tube
  • clear plastic tape
  • funnel
  • water


Contour-following the lay of the land, rather than cutting through or across it; to mark contour lines on something such as a map; to build or operate something so that it follows the natural shape of the land Topographical-to build or operate something so that it follows the natural shape of the land Slope-Ground that inclines slightly; a slant upward; mathematics: the tangent of the angle between a straight line and the x-axis Infrastructure-the large-scale public systems, services, and facilities of a country or region that are necessary for economic activity, including power and water supplies, public transportation, telecommunications, roads, and schools


Preview: Why do you think buildings and structures are placed in certain locations? What do you need to know to dig a well; to build a building in a wetland; to build on a slope or hill? What do you think would happen if you built a house on a piece of land you were not familiar with? Day one
  • Introduce the lesson by reviewing the preview questions with the class. Explain that they will learn about contour maps, and their importance to farmers, builders, city planners, and engineers.
  • Go to the contour maps website: https://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/geology/leveson/core/linksa/contourmaps_menu.html
  • and have the students complete the on-line assignment individually, in groups, or as a whole class.
  • Have the students take the quiz at the end of the website.
  • Next, pass out the handouts on how to make contour map equipment.
  • Form groups of 4-5 students and assign each group a piece of contouring equipment to make. (I had the class build two of each measuring device and it worked out well.)
  • Pass out or have the students gather the supplies for the project.
  • For the A-frame with the plumb line, you may have to explain “dead center.” The math teacher explained this portion and showed the students how to measure dead center for each hole that had to be drilled.
  • After the marks are made, supervise the drilling. Students should wear protective eyewear.
  • For the other measuring device, have them break the number line down into a large yardstick. If you want to use a yardstick you can, but it takes the fun out of it. You can also improve the measuring device with a few modifications.
Day two
  • After the equipment is completed, select a hill near your school. We used the highest elevation in a nearby park. Bring 30 or more stakes.
  • Practice using the equipment and begin to measure and place the stakes.
  • Provide the students with a starting elevation as a point of reference and have the first group measure down by two feet and the other by ten feet. Measure and record five elevations and write them down. (I brought a contour map of the area with us.)
  • While in the park, explain slope to the students and provide them with the formula for finding slope. Make sure they understand how to apply the formula to their work.
  • When you return to the classroom, debrief with the students. “What did you like and dislike about the activity? What did you learn? Did anyone figure out the slope of the hill? If you were a farmer, where would you dig for a well on the hill—the top or the bottom?” Compare their measurements with an aerial photo of the exact area or a contour map of the area to check for accuracy.
Days three-five
  • Demonstrate how to trace the contours using tracing paper and record the elevations on the traced pattern.
  • The students should follow the same procedure for all of the elevations they want to construct.
  • Cut the patterns out and have the students layer them on top of one another and glue them down. It should look like the hill they contoured.
  • The students can paint it green and add trees or buildings to scale if they desire.


  • The student can explain what contours are through drawing and verbal means
  • The student can create a topographical map using collected data

Enrichment Extension Activities

  • Investigate how the land has changed over time due to the creation of city infrastructures.
  • Have the students look up other historical maps from the area and analyze them.
  • Investigate the homes and structures in the community.
  • Write a story about the early settlers (native included) and how they surveyed the land and built the homes that are still standing.

Teacher Reflection

The students loved these lessons because they applied what they learned in class outside of class. They enjoyed the math because they understood it. They liked working with their hands and comparing their work and findings to the experts.

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