Lesson Plan

Elevation Above and Below Pre-Trip Activity

A topographic map depicting Telescope Peak, Badwater Basin, and Dante's View

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Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
Science,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
Additional Standards:
NGSS: 4-ESS2-2 Analyze and interpret data from maps to describe patterns of the Earth’s features
Thinking Skills:
Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations.

Essential Question

What does sea level mean, and how does it relate to elevation?


Students will be able to:
• describe elevation.
• explore topographic maps to form a clear understanding of elevation.
• use sea level as a reference point while describing elevation.
• analyze and interpret data to make sense of phenomena using logical reasoning


Lesson Overview: For this activity students will explore the way topographic maps are used to describe elevation such as “sea level,” “below sea level,” and “above sea level.” Students will compare and contrast side view diagrams of mountains and valleys to topographic maps. Students will use their own hands to create a topographic map of their own. 

Death Valley’s Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. This is often a difficult concept for students to grasp. There are common misconceptions as to why Death Valley is so low. One common misconception is that there was once an ocean in Death Valley, but it dried up. Another misconception is that Death Valley was created by a river’s erosion. The reason Death Valley’s Badwater Basin is so low is that the stretching of the earth’s crust has dropped this location to such depths.

In order to have exposed land below sea level, the climate must be extremely dry. In wet places, low points fill with water and overflow to the sea. A dry climate evaporates water, leaving behind salt flats.


Each student will need:

  • 1 washable ball point pen or marker

  • Topographic map worksheet

Teacher will need:

  • 1 document camera (such as Elmo)

  • 1 projector


This PowerPoint presentation introduces the concept of elevation and reading topographic maps. It includes specific examples in Death Valley National Park.

Download Elevation and Topographic Map PowerPoint Presentation

For this assessment, students will need to pick out the highest and lowest points, and write their elevations.

Download Topographic Maps Worksheet

Lesson Hook/Preview

Anticipatory Set

Ask students if they have ever looked at a map. Ask them to describe the map to a partner. After 5 minutes of partner discussion, ask the students to begin engaging in classroom discussion based on what they see on a map.


What is topography?” by Monkey See


PowerPoint Presentation

Using the Topographic Maps PowerPoint presentation, introduce the concept of elevation and topographic maps. Compare and contrast the side view and topographic map view with the students.

  • What does Badwater look like from the side view?

  • What does Badwater look like from the top view?

  • What does the Panamint Mountain Range look like from the side view?

  • What does it look like from the top view? (You may need to point out the line spacing as a clue).

Next, using the presentation, explain to the students how the terms “above sea level” and “below sea level” are used. During this section, address the misconception that “below sea level” must mean that the place is below the surface of the ocean or that a sea once was in that location.

Photos are provided in the presentation to reinforce that the locations in Death Valley are not underwater. Instructor should make it clear to the students that “below sea level,” does not necessarily mean that there was ever any water there, but that it is a phrase used to describe elevation. Some slides have teacher notes to assist with the presentation.

Topographic Map Hands Lab Activity

For student success teacher should work alongside the students using a document camera and projecting their hand on the screen.

  1. Review topographic map lines in the PowerPoint. Take note of peaks and valleys.

  2. Form fist with less dominant hand.

  3. Point out the knuckles. Are they taller than the rest of your hand?

  4. Trace the highest part on top three knuckles first. Make sure it is three separate circles representing the peaks.

  5. Continue making couture lines around the knuckles.

  6. Keep tracing until there are lines to the middle of your hand.

  7. Take note of the where the irregular shapes, the higher points (or mountains) are located.

  8. Students analyze their own hand.

  9. Ask them to place their finger on the peak.

  10. Ask them to put their finger in the lowest point.

  11. Ask how they knew it was the lowest point.

This activity is adapted from “Topographic Map Activity” by ScouterLife


Elevation: Height or given level, especially sea level.
Sea Level: the level of the sea's surface, used in calculating the height of landforms such as hills, mountains, and salt flats.
Topographic Map: map showing natural and human-made features of the land and marked by contour lines showing elevation.

Assessment Materials

Topographic Maps Worksheet Assessment

Use the Topographic Maps Worksheet to assess learning. For this assessment, students will need to pick out the highest and lowest points, and write their elevations. Students should use the words “below sea level” and “above sea level” when describing elevation.

Enrichment Activities

To reinforce the concept of “below sea level”
During the hand activity, identify one of those lines as sea level. This could be a dashed line instead of a solid line so that students remember which one is “sea level” on their hand. Ask the students to point to a place on their hand that is above sea level. Ask the students to point to a place that is below sea level.

Enrichment Questions

  • Looking at a topographic map, how might we tell that one mountain is taller than another?

  • Imagine you are planning a trip using your hand map. You are going to travel from your thumb to your little finger. You want to take the easiest way. Which way would you plan to go? Why?

Additional Resources

National Geographic- Elevation

Related Lessons or Education Materials

This lesson plan pairs well with any of our field trips as as a pre-trip activity. The concept of elevation is directly addressed in our such as Dynamic Death Valley program.

This lesson plan was developed through the Teacher-Ranger-Teacher program. Please provide us with feedback on this lesson plan using the contact link below. Thank you!

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Last updated: November 22, 2021