ALEX Lesson Plan

Mapping the Mountains

You may save this lesson plan to your hard drive as an html file by selecting "File", then "Save As" from your browser's pull down menu. The file name extension must be .html.

  This lesson provided by:  
Author:Kathy Perkins
System: Tuscaloosa City
School: Tuscaloosa City Board Of Education
The event this resource created for:ASTA
  General Lesson Information  
Lesson Plan ID: 34672


Mapping the Mountains


Students will describe features shown on topographic maps as they plan a route for a bicycle race around the school neighborhood.  First, they will create clay mountains and learn how to make topographic maps of their landforms.  Then they will interpret topographic maps made by other students in the class to match each mountain to its map.  Finally, they will use topographic maps of the school campus to plan an exciting but safe bike race route.

This lesson results from a collaboration between the Alabama State Department of Education and ASTA.

 Associated Standards and Objectives 
Content Standard(s):
SC2015 (2015)
Grade: 4
16 ) Describe patterns of Earth's features on land and in the ocean using data from maps (e.g., topographic maps of Earth's land and ocean floor; maps of locations of mountains, continental boundaries, volcanoes, and earthquakes).

Alabama Alternate Achievement Standards
AAS Standard:
SCI.AAS.4.16- Use a map key to identify land and water features on a map.

Local/National Standards:


Primary Learning Objective(s):

The students will:

  • describe landforms and maps using the terms elevation, steep, gradual slope, topographic, and contour line.
  • create and map a model of a mountain.
  • analyze topographic maps of the school neighborhood to design a bike race route.

Additional Learning Objective(s):

 Preparation Information 

Total Duration:

Greater than 120 Minutes

Materials and Resources:

modeling clay or firm play dough (enough for each group of 2-3 students to have a fist-sized ball of clay)

dental floss



copies of school neighborhood map for each group of students (printed using Enviromapper)

Technology Resources Needed:


Students may think that landforms only exist where there are large or unusual features such as cliffs, volcanoes, or mountains.  This lesson will help them understand that the land in their own neighborhoods has features that affect where people choose to live and how they travel.  The following terms should be used throughout the lesson so students begin to embed them into their own discussions about land features and maps:

  • topographic map: a map that shows the elevation of land features. 
  • relief: the difference between the highest and lowest elevations in an area
  • elevation: height above a given level (often sea level)
  • slope: a rising or falling surface

Engage (10 – 15 minutes):  

1. Show students an “Earth” view of your school using Google Maps.  Discuss visible landmarks on this photo view (trees, school building, roads, fields, etc.)  Change to a “Street” view map to compare and contrast the two maps.  Have partners turn and talk about the following questions:

  • What is visible on one type of map but not the other?
  • When would the photographic “Earth” view be more useful? 
  • When would a street map be more useful?
  • What information about our school campus is not visible on either map?  Is there another type of map we could use to get this information? (These questions will help you determine prior knowledge about topographic maps.)

2. Tell students they will be designing a bike race course around the neighborhood.  Why would they want to consider elevation when designing their path?  Have small groups discuss features that would make the best bike course.  What would make the race faster? Possible responses could be a straight course or going downhill. What would slow down the riders? Possible responses could be lots of turns, going uphill, etc.  What would make the race more exciting?  (Possible responses could be obstacles, jumps, etc.)

3. Have students work in small groups to list the land features they need to know about in order to plan the best race. 

Explore (40 – 50 minutes):

  1. Explain to students they will investigate a new type of map, called a topographic map, to help them plan their bike race routes.  A topographic map is a map that shows the elevation of land features.  Explain they will make their own mountains with clay and constructing a topographic map of their mountains to better understand how to use these types of maps.
  2. Students will work in groups of 2 – 3 students.  Give each group a fist-size ball of modeling clay or play-dough to use to create mountains.  If play-dough is used, make sure it is firm enough to maintain its shape when sliced with dental floss.  Encourage students to make their mountains unique, because they will need to be able to tell their mountain apart from the others in the class. 
  3. Place the mountain on a piece of paper or cardboard and trace the outer edge of the mountain with a marker. Place two pencils through the mountain vertically at its peak and mark two dots on the paper to show the orientation of the mountain. 
  4. Measure the height of the mountain in 1 cm increments.  Separate each 1 cm layer of the mountain using dental floss.  Orient the second layer using the dots on the paper, then trace the outline to show 1 cm elevation.  Continue tracing each layer to make a topographic map.  For full instructions, go to NASA Space Place.

Explain (15 – 20 minutes):

  1. Have students reassemble their mountains.  Explain that the outline of each layer on the map is called a contour line.  Students should indicate the elevation of each line. (The bottom of the mountain is the outer contour line, which has an elevation of 0 cm; the next interior line shows the 1 cm elevation, the next 2 cm, etc.) 
  2. Discuss what the distance between the contour lines means on the clay mountain. (The lines that are closer together show a steep hill.  When the lines are farther apart it shows a more gradual rise.)  When students can explain how their maps match their mountains, have students place their mountains in a line on one side of the classroom and collect the topographic maps.
  3. Shuffle the topographic maps and redistribute them to groups so they can match another group’s map to its corresponding mountain.  Groups will select the mountain that they think is represented by their map.  Each group will explain to the class why they believe this is the matching mountain based on data from the map.  The group that made the mountain will then tell them if they chose the correct mountain.
  4. Show students a topographic map of your school using the Enviromapper site.  Have students identify areas of high and low elevation on the school campus or in the neighborhood.  Where are the steepest hills?  What are the flattest areas?

Elaborate (15 – 20 minutes):

Using their knowledge of topographic maps, students will work in small groups to create a one-mile (or any other set distance) bike trail through the school neighborhood that will result in the most exciting (but still safe) race. Give students printed copies of the topographic neighborhood map to use in the planning process. 

As students plan, have them discuss these questions:

  • Will we only use streets, or will there be some “off road” components to the race?
  • What elevations will make the race go faster?  What parts of the neighborhood will slow the racers down?
  • What areas should be avoided to keep the race safe?


Assessment Strategies


Evaluate (10 – 15 minutes):

Each group will describe its race route to the class and explain why they selected a particular path.  Is their route supported by evidence?  Some examples of evidence showing a clear understanding of the features shown in the topographic map:

  • avoiding areas covered by water or slopes so steep they would be unsafe
  • choosing downhill slopes to make the race go faster
  • choosing routes with gradual turns so the racers can maintain speed


Acceleration Options:

  1. Create a relief map of the school neighborhood using clay or salt dough.  
  2. Visit Landslides website to read about landslides, earthquakes, and sinkholes in Alabama.  Analyze topographic maps of Alabama landslides, sinkholes, or earthquakes to explain changes in the land and identify whether your city or neighborhood is at risk for these natural disasters.


Intervention: Students needing extra assistance should be grouped with students who can help during the creation of topographic maps and race routes.

View the Special Education resources for instructional guidance in providing modifications and adaptations for students with significant cognitive disabilities who qualify for the Alabama Alternate Assessment.