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Maps, Models, and More

by Michael Acuff

Construct a Three-Dimensional Model
Map the Model
Climate Patterns and Vegetation Zones
Settlement Patterns and Population Density
Cross-Sectional Diagramming


Three-Dimensional Model Student Worksheet
Three-Dimensional Model Grading Guide
Map the Model Student Worksheet
Settlement Patterns Student Worksheet


Planning hands-on geography lessons is both challenging and necessary. Processes and information experienced first hand are more likely to be retained than concepts and skills taught primarily through the printed word and worksheet. Therefore, the critical problem we face as teachers of world geography is that of designing activities which allow concepts to become personal experiences. How can we help a student living on the plains experience mountains and the changes caused by rising elevation? How can tools that display those changes in elevation, such as maps and cross sections, come alive for learners in a classroom? How can students personally understand the decisions that caused certain regions of the United States to be heavily populated and others sparsely inhabited? The series of activities presented in this segment of eTeach provides some solutions to those problems and builds a firm foundation for teaching both physical and human geography. It also makes strong connections across the curriculum to history, science, and math.

Application of the lessons presented here is flexible. The activities are designed for use at the start of study in world geography at the secondary level, but teachers have used them successfully at midterm to review concepts and measure retention. Students who demonstrate widely differing abilities and prior knowledge, including pre-advanced placement, transitional language students, and special education children, enjoy these activities and demonstrate understanding of the information taught through this hands-on approach. With the exception of the first activity described below, none of the activities depend on another. This allows you to choose among the activities or elect to complete all of them. The activities may be completed as a single unit or may be implemented at intervals coinciding with direct instruction of concepts throughout the year. It was common for students in my classes to refer to models throughout the entire course, and I continued to demonstrate concepts using the models for many months after construction and initial lessons were completed.

The objective of these lessons is to simultaneously teach content, processes, and skills. Students learn the vocabulary of physical geography, apply basic concepts of climate and vegetation, and practice fundamental cartography skills. In addition, students engage in meaningful decision making and solve problems as a team. The activities involve cognitive skills that span the entire scale from knowledge to synthesis. Following this series of activities, students are able to make valid predictions and draw justifiable conclusions concerning biomes, population distribution, economic activities, and weather patterns with the use of only elevation maps. Acquiring these skills is invaluable to future studies in world history and United States studies.


Objectives: The primary objectives of this activity are to develop an understanding of the vocabulary of physical geography and to engage students in problem solving and decision making. The end product is a three-dimensional model of landforms and water bodies that is the basic tool for the activities that follow. Therefore, this step is required in order to participate in the activities described below. For your convenience, student directions to complete the model and a grading guide to evaluate the finished project are included.

Planning: Begin the activity with a survey of geographic terms that describe landforms and water bodies. Illustrate each term using photographs of representative features and the diagram. Discuss size, relief, and shape as basic differences that define landforms and water bodies. Analogies can be useful as well: A hill is to a mountain as a mesa is to a plateau. A harbor is to a bay as a pond is to a lake. Finding similarities and differences between types of water bodies and landforms can also be instructive. How is an archipelago like an island? How are the two landforms different? What is a characteristic that a delta and a beach share? Name one way in which they differ.

Review the directions for constructing the model. Discuss the directions with students, and display a completed model of physical features, if one is available. This activity is designed for students working together to complete the models during scheduled class periods. Working in teams comprising of three or four members, the activity can be completed in approximately three hours.

An important first stage of the construction process is sketching a preliminary map that proposes ideas for the model. This is a simple outline of contours that mark the shoreline of the main landmass and the location of rivers, mountains, and other physical features on the landmass and in the ocean. Students should also label the features with the correct terms. This serves a purpose similar to that of pre-writing prior to composing an essay in English class. The process helps students to generate ideas and to develop a plan of action. During this stage, specific jobs can be assigned to team members and construction materials can be discussed. The "sketch map" also allows the teacher to check for understanding of geographic terms and to guide students to make necessary corrections early in the process. A preliminary map with a strait marked on the landmass alerts the teacher to student misunderstanding and presents an opportunity to reteach information in small groups before construction of the model.

Materials: Actual construction of the model follows the sketch map. The best base for models is a foam core board, but corrugated cardboard is also a good choice. The stiff backing simplifies the storage of works in progress and can be recycled in future models. Poster board is not suitable because it is too flimsy. Any materials that can be shaped and do not weigh much or shed are good candidates for modeling the landforms. These include brown paper bags, plastic wrap, sandpaper, colored construction paper, styrofoam peanuts, screening, and paper cups. Clay should be restricted because it is heavy and can take several days to dry. Tape, glue, and staples adequately secure materials to the base. No glitter, liquids, or organic matter is recommended. Markers for labeling and coloring shaped items are necessary. Plastic grocery bags labeled with group member names on masking tape are useful for storing supplies. Resources that illustrate landforms and water bodies should be available for students to study. Suitable photographs can be easily found on calendars and in magazines.

Assessment: It is very important that the finished models are marked with the terms that identify the landforms and the water bodies displayed. An experienced world geography teacher may be able to recognize numerous physical features on the finished model; however, simply shaping the features is not sufficient evidence that the student recognizes the accuracy of his work. Measurement of student understanding of those features is achieved when a label has been affixed correctly to the particular landform or water body. Oral assessment can be substituted for labels. However, this is more difficult to measure than written words. A grading guide is included for your convenience.


This is a terrific opportunity for students to gain an understanding of basic cartography. After mapping their models, students recognize the difficulty cartographers encounter when showing three dimensions in a two-dimensional format. This understanding allows them to recognize the limitations of maps and to use maps more accurately during the study of geography or history.

Mapping the finished model takes approximately one and one-half hours. If there is not enough time on your calendar to map the models, a cooperative math teacher might be interested in this activity. The process gives students practice in measuring, converting numbers, and applying math to modify images from one size to another. This could also be used as an activity in a computer technology class, if imaging programs are available.

Step-by-step directions for mapping the model and examples of student maps are included as addenda. Begin by modeling the process for the whole class; this is an important step in student success. Another helpful strategy is to pair students for mapping the model and to seat them so that both see the model from the same viewpoint. This allows two students to collaborate during the process, although each student is responsible for completing his own map.

Mapping is the most difficult extension of the model project. It is, however, one of the most valuable activities. Students are motivated to complete this challenging process because the map is based on a product that they created. It also allows students to transfer skills between the social studies, fine arts, and mathematics.


Here are three ways to use the model to explore climate patterns and vegetation zones.

  1. Use the model to assess student understanding of how climate patterns vary with distance from the equator.
    Distribute lengths of yarn in various colors to each team. Assign a major parallel or meridian to each color, such as red to stand for the Equator, yellow and green to represent the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, blue and black to stand for the Arctic Circle and the Antarctic Circle, and white to represent the Prime Meridian. Assess student knowledge of these terms, as well as the terms tropics, middle latitudes, and polar regions, by viewing the placement of the yarn and asking students to orally identify each length of yarn and the region it defines. Discuss the major climate regions and the cause for each. Review changes in water and air temperature as distance from the Equator changes.
  2. Use the model to demonstrate how climates vary with distance from large bodies of water and with the temperature of water bodies.
    Assume the temperature of the water body offshore from the landmass to be warm, and direct students to discuss the manner in which climate varies as distance from the shore increases. Assume the temperature of the water to be cold, and discuss the effect this has on precipitation and temperature inland. Assume the wind blows inland, and then reverse this to discuss the effect of winds that blow offshore. Ask students to locate on the model places where deserts, grass lands, rain forests, tundra, and deciduous forests will most likely be found. Students should be able to justify their thinking in terms of temperature and precipitation resulting from continentality, wind direction, and water temperature.
  3. Use the model to explain how climates vary with changes in elevation.
    Direct students to explain the effect of rising elevation on precipitation and temperature, including terms such as orographic precipitation, leeward, windward, and rain shadow desert. Each of the terms should be associated with a location on the model that can be justified in terms of wind direction and landforms. Compare and contrast the changes in climate that result from rising elevation to those that relate to distance from the Equator.

Assessment of these concepts is most easily accomplished by students demonstrating their knowledge using the model in combination with oral discussion. Written assessment can also be used; however, it is more time consuming and is sometimes less reliable as a measure of learning.


This activity draws on the concepts of climate and vegetation and causes students to consider why people settle one region more heavily than another. It may be used as an introduction to population distribution, as a culminating activity to measure the effectiveness of direct instruction about settlement patterns, or to make connections between concepts, including climate, vegetation, and population density.

Activity: Direct students to physically "settle" a population on the model. Arrange students around a model in groups of three or four, and give each group 20 pennies. The pennies represent the people who inhabit the region, and each penny represents 5% of the population. All 20 pennies must be placed on the model. As they place the pennies on the model, students should consider climate, economic opportunities, landforms, adjacent water bodies, and other factors they believe to be important in deciding where people settle. In the process of placing pennies on the model, students should discover the difficulties of living in mountainous regions. Pennies slide down the slopes just as buildings are prone to do, and the difficulty of growing crops to support the population of a mountainous region should also be acknowledged. Students should recognize the appeal of coastal plains as centers of trade with moderate climates and adequate precipitation for growing crops. Disadvantages to coastal locations may also be identified, such as hurricanes, flooding, erosion, and rising water levels.

Assessment: Determining student comprehension for this activity can be accomplished by both oral and written formats. Direct students to identify the two places on their models that are most heavily settled and the two places with the fewest inhabitants. Discuss the findings and guide students to name common characteristics among the locations identified. Extend this discussion with independent practice. Redirect students to the models and complete the exercise titled "Settlement Patterns". This exercise causes students to analyze the pattern of distribution in a new way and to recognize that most of the model surfaces are not inhabited. It also allows students to summarize independently the findings of the group and to practice the skill of generalization. Confirm generalizations made by students with supporting evidence in the text. Finish by guiding students to draw conclusions about the importance of climate and economic opportunities as determinants for settlement.

Enrichment: This activity may be extended in several ways. It is a good segue to a discussion of the meaning of arable land and the impact arable land has on standard of living. Furthermore, it is an excellent opportunity to discuss the concept of carrying capacity.

It is also an exhibit of population density that students can alter physically. Direct students to create low, medium, and high population density within a defined region, followed by an examination of the number of pennies within the region for a quick assessment of their understanding of density patterns. In addition, students can make population density maps of the settlement patterns on the models. Simply trace the maps of landforms and water bodies previously prepared for each model, and color them according to density ranges determined by the class.


The three-dimensional model is a great aid for explaining cross-sectional diagrams. Stretch a length of yarn across mountain peaks and plains in a straight line from one side of the model to the other. Draw the contours of the landforms as they rise and fall on the model. Move the yarn to another location and repeat the process. This allows students to understand that the cross-section is not a general view of the region. Rather, it is limited to a very narrow band and the diagram can be altered greatly by adjusting the point at which it is taken. This helps students to recognize the advantages and disadvantages of using a cross-sectional diagram and improves understanding of elevation changes within a region.

The activity can be extended to demonstrate how a cross-section exaggerates elevation changes in relation to distance. Establish a horizontal axis in terms of miles or kilometers and a vertical axis in terms of feet or meters. Use these same units to measure the models, using the height of landforms established by students on the maps of their models. Again, place the yarn across the model and draw the contours of the landforms according to the measurements taken. The result exaggerates the height of the landforms on the model, just as elevation is emphasized in a cross-section of an actual landmass.


These student-centered activities lay a solid foundation for understanding some of the major concepts of physical geography. This foundation, in turn, promotes understanding of why world regions vary so greatly and diminishes reliance on memorization of statistics and facts. I hope that these activities make it convenient and interesting for you to teach physical geographic processes and that your students enjoy the activities as much as mine have.


Nystrom Desk Atlas, Nystrom, Division of Herff Jones, Inc., Chicago, 1994. This atlas provides map symbols on page 7 that are useful when students map their models, and examples of cross sectional diagrams can be found on pages 74–75, 92–93, 126–127, and 137.


National Geographic

United States Census

University of Texas Perry-Castañeda Library

The CIA World Factbook

About Geography