Developing Map Skills Through Earth Science Activities

Teaching earth science concepts such as erosion, landforms, earthquakes, and volcanoes is a perfect time to help students develop map skills. Using a map key, understanding map scale, or even learning about topographic maps are all possible through the integration of earth science and social studies. Pairing the two also helps students see the utility in learning to read and analyze a variety of maps. To make the connection even clearer, incorporate a field trip! Taking your students outdoors provides the opportunity to use maps in a real-world context and to view the landforms and formations caused by erosion.

We’ve highlighted lessons, activities, and resources that ask students to use, compare, and analyze information from a variety of maps. Students in the primary grades are introduced to maps while upper-elementary students analyze maps and learn how topographic maps represent three-dimensional landforms.


The National Map (Grades K-5)
The National Map is an online, interactive map service provided by the U.S. Geological Survey. Use this as a whole class resource to view a variety of data about the United States, including fault lines, real-time earthquakes, and volcanoes. Great with an interactive whiteboard! (See “Integrating Technology: Interactive Whiteboards” for more information on using this technology in the classroom.)

Map Adventures (Grades K-2)
This seven-lesson unit introduces primary students to maps and how to understand and use them.

Potato Topo (Grades 3-5)
Students use a potato to make a 3-D topographic map and understand how topography can be represented on a 1-D map.

Topographic Salad-Tray Model (Grades 3-5)
Students start with a topographic map of a geographic feature (such as a mountain) and create a 3-D model.

Earthquakes and Volcanoes (Grades 3-5)
As students learn to read maps, it is important that they learn how to compare maps that show different types of information. This lesson asks them to compare maps of plate tectonics with population density maps and to analyze what these maps imply about the relationship between population and seismic hazards.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright December 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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