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3D topographic map activity

You will need:

For the dough

  • 600g Flour,
  • 300mL water
  • 100mL vegetable oil
  • 2 tablespoons of cream of tartar
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • Bowl, spoon

For the activity

  • Dough
  • Two rulers
  • Toothpick
  • 30 cm dental floss
  • Pencil

3D topographic map activity; close up of dough resting on A4 paper being cut by dental floss attached to two rulers
Creating the 3D topographic map model


  1. Create the dough in the bowl by mixing the ingredients together and set to one side.
  2. You'll need to make a simple map. Using a ruler, divide your A4 paper into quarters as shown below:

    Dividing A4 paper into quarters using a ruler and pencil
    Creating a simple map
  3. The pencil marks are going to act as simple latitude and longitude markers on your map. Mark the top line as 'North', the right side 'East', the left line as 'West' and the bottom line as 'South'.
  4. Place the dough on the center of the cross. The dough is now going to be your 'mountain'.
  5. Using your toothpick, carefully draw two lines up and over the dough 'mountain'. This will allow you to orient your 'mountain' each time you create a topographic slice of the terrain in the steps below.

    Marking the dough for the topographic map with a toothpick
    Marking the dough for the topographic map
  6. Use the pencil to draw around the base of your 'dough mountain'. This will create your first elevation on your map.
  7. Tie the dental floss at equal heights between the two rulers. This simple device will create your topographic slices in the next step.
  8. Carefully place the rulers either side of your 'dough mountain'. You should be able to slowly pull the rulers toward you so that the dental floss between the rulers cuts the dough evenly.

    3D topographic map activity; dividing the dough 'mountain' using two rulers and dental floss as the cutter
    Dividing the 'dough mountain' using the rulers and dental floss
  9. Carefully remove the top layer off your dough 'mountain' and discard the bottom part.
  10. Place the top layer back onto the map center, being sure to orient the lines you made with the toothpick as carefully as you can with your map's latitude and longitude markers.
  11. As before, use the pencil to draw around this new 'dough mountain' to create the next elevation on your topographic map.
  12. Again, use your rulers and dental floss to cut another layer.
  13. Keep repeating until you run out of dough! You should get a simple, yet effective, topographic map of your dough 'mountain'. Each line represents the increase in elevation and hopefully represents the shape of the dough 'mountain' at each elevation too! You might also see some mistakes in your map (eg, squished dough creating warped lines or even the elevations crossing over).

    Simple topographic map created after a dough activity
    Lines created on the topographic map; can you spot the elevation mistakes?

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What is this all about?

The ability to read how steep hills and valleys are is critical when viewing a topographic map. Cartographers (people who create maps) use lines to represent elevation in maps to show people how steep the terrain actually is. Think of these lines as imaginary segments of the Earth, whereby the lines represent how high or low a particular point of the map is compared to seal level.

The dough activity above simulates these segments that cartographers make of the Earth's surface. Look at the map your created. Notice how some lines are close together where as others are further apart. If you repeat the activity above but re-stack each segment as you might notice some patterns:
  • The steep parts of your dough mountain show the lines being closer together.
  • The less steep parts show lines being further spaced apart.
This is really handy, as effectively you can show cliffs as incredibly close lines squished together which stand out quite well on a two dimensional map, really handy when planning your next bushwalking trip!

You can create your own topographic maps by surveying your local surroundings using an altimeter and tape (or alternatively a smart phone and Google Maps!). Another way is to create a simple data set in Microsoft Excel to show students how the coordinates on a grid can create a three dimensional mountain.

3D topographic map activity using Excel
3D topographic map activity using Microsoft Excel
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