Create a Contour Map

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Grade Level
Older Elementary or Middle
Difficulty of Project
Safety Issues

If making your own modeling dough, be careful cooking the dough on the stove.

Material Availability

Materials are readily available. The modeling dough may be purchased (ex. Play Doh) or made at home, if cream of tartar is available.

Approximate Time Required to Complete the Project

3 hours for basic project.


Mount You: Make a mini mountain out of dough, and then make a contour map out of your creation.

Materials and Equipment / Ingredients

  • 2 cups play dough (* see recipe at end)
  • 2 rulers (or 1 ruler and 1 pencil)
  • Thin string, about 12 inches long. (Dental floss works well, if you have it)
  • 1 Pencil
  • 1 toothpick (or sharp pencil point)
  • 2 sheets of paper.
  • Scotch tape


In this project, you will make your own mini-mountain, and then make a contour map of your mountain.

What’s a contour map? Let’s start with the word “contour.” A contour is a line that shows the border or outline of an object. A contour map is a 2-dimensional drawing of land. The map includes contour lines to show changes in the elevation of the land.

Here is a part of a contour map, showing the area of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The brown contour lines show every 40 feet of elevation change. The top of Half Dome is at 8836 feet. When the brown lines are close together, the elevation changes quickly.


The photograph will help you understand the contour map of Half Dome. The sheer face of rock is the part that is mapped with the contour lines very close together. The top of Half Dome that is fairly flat appears to have much more white space between the brown contour lines.

Each contour line shows all connected land that is at the same elevation. Contour lines may be drawn at every five-foot difference in height, every 100-foot difference in height, or at some other scale, depending on the terrain being mapped. The closer the lines are to each other, the more steep the terrain.

In this project, you will be making a map that is life-sized. That means you are using a scale of 1 to 1: one inch on the map represents one inch of distance on the model. Your contour lines will represent each one-inch change in elevation.

Research Questions

  • If you make multiple contour maps, can you tell the difference between a mountain that is steep and a landscape that rises more gradually? How will the two maps differ?
  • Let’s say you want to create a map of a real-world feature, like Half Dome in Yosemite. A rock formation like that may be 5000 feet wide. If you want your contour map to fit on a piece of 8.5 x 11 inch paper, what scale might you use?

Terms, Concepts and Questions to Start Background Research

In this science project, you make a contour map of a model mountain. The map shows the changes in elevation of your mountain. Contour maps are also called topographic maps. The U.S. Geological Survey makes topographic maps, including many at 1:24,000 scale

  • Contour Map:A contour map is a 2-dimensional drawing of land, which includes contour lines to show changes in the elevation of the land. The use of contour lines allows a 2-dimensional map to show what land looks like in three dimensions: length, width and height.
  • Elevation:Elevation is a measurement of how high you are above a fixed point, like sea level. It often is measured in feet or meters. At an elevation of 1,453 feet, you’d be standing on the one hundred and second floor of the Empire State Building, gazing down at the New York City skyline. At an elevation of 0 feet, you’d be standing in the lobby, waiting for the elevator. Get it? An elevator is a machine that enables you to easily change your elevation. To elevate means to lift up.
  • Topographic map: Topographic maps display the three-dimensional characteristics of terrain on a two-dimensional surface. Topographic maps usually show and name both natural and manmade features, such as lakes, mountains, airports and roads. Topographic maps have many uses, including recreation, environmental management and emergency response planning.
  • United States Geological Survey: The United States Geological Survey, abbreviated as the USGS, is the government agency responsible for producing topographic maps of the entire United States.
  • Scale:The ratio of distances on a map to the corresponding values on Earth. The best-known USGS maps are 1:24,000-scale topographic maps. One inch on a map of that scale represents 2,000 feet. (See attached complete Half Dome map for an example.)
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