Karen Berquist
Department of Geology
College of William and Mary
Williamsburg, VA 23187

Level: Grades 5 - 8


Estimated Time Required: 45 minutes


Anticipated Learning Outcomes


Maps and map symbols play an important role in many aspects of geology. Familiarity with maps and map reading are important skills for work in the geosciences as well as for everyday living. This map exercise introduces students to basic topographic map symbols. Students will have the opportunity to see their own school environment depicted in two dimensions. First, students learn to interpret some basic map symbols using a map of the topographic quadrangle that includes their school. Then, students will work in small groups to use map reading skills to make observations and generalizations about unfamiliar areas.



  1. Ask students what type of features they expect to be represented by symbols on a map. Make a list. Group features by categories, i.e. human-made, natural features.
  2. Use an opaque projector to project an enlarged image of the Topographic Map Symbols pamphlet. Note features that students have listed. How are they represented? How is color used to distinguish features?
  3. Project the portion of the topographic map that shows the school where you are located. What map symbols do students recognize? Describe the area based only on information from map symbols.
  4. Provide groups of 2 - 4 students with their own topographic map of a new region. Conceal the quadrangle name and state name. Give the students a few minutes to study their maps, gathering information from the map symbols. Each group then compiles several brief statements describing their area, based on information from the map symbols.

Results and Discussion

  1. Allow each group a few minutes to present their map observations to the class. Ask them to speculate on what region of the country their map represents based on the information they have gathered. Place a marker on a large wall map to locate their region.
  2. Note that latitude and longitude are given on each map sheet at each corner. (Remember, for North America, the latitude will increase to the north and longitude will increase to the west). Compare the estimates with the actual locations of the maps.
  3. Ask students what sort of information they could NOT get from the maps.
  4. What kind of information were students able to learn about an area based only on map symbols? How could this kind of information be useful?


MAKOWER, Joel, 1992, The map catalog: Every kind of map and chart on earth and even some above it, 3rd ed., Vintage Books, NY, 364 pp.

THOMPSON, Morris M., 1988, 3rd edition, Maps for America: Reston, VA, U.S. Geological Survey, 265 p.

U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY, Topographic Map Symbols: Reston VA, U.S. Geological Survey, pamphlet.

Notes to Teachers

There are several ways to acquire 7.5 minute topographic maps. You may order them, for $2.50 plus shipping, from the Earth Science Information Center, phone 1-800-USA MAPS or (703) 648-5920. A free index of maps is available for each state. You may also request multiple copies of the free brochure, Topographic Map Symbols. A packet of teaching aides is available by written request on school letterhead. Briefly describe your project and grade level. Address your request to Earth Science Information Center, U.S. Geological Survey, 507 National Center, Reston, VA 22092. FAX (703) 648-5548, or write USGS Map Sales, Federal Center, Box 25286, Denver, CO 80225.

Superceded topographic maps are sometimes available to teachers free from libraries or geology department collections. Check with your local library, nearest government documents depository library, and geology departments at universities.

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