Student Activities

Surveying into the darkness

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Grade Level:
Upper Elementary: Third Grade through Fifth Grade
State Standards:



  • 36 cups
  • Something to weigh down the cups

Each group needs:

  • Compass
  • Tape measure
  • Graph paper
  • Attached student sheet

Background: Proper documentation of a cave is important in determining its scientific value and significance. Cave mapping is the foundation of any type of cave research. In order to properly protect the resource we need to accurately identify the full extent of the resource. 

Since the 1880s, Wind Cave has been explored. Early explores drew some rudimentary maps but more recent surveys have a more rigorous approach. As of 2016, more than 144 miles of passages have been surveyed and the end is not in sight.

 A strong cave survey team has four members. Each survey team member has a certain job which consists of a sketcher, an instrument reader, a lead tape person and a person taking inventory of cave features. Three member teams are common too. With this the inventory is done by one of the three members.The only thing that has changed in recent times is that instead of a tape measure, cave explorers will use a laser pointer to measure distance.  The collected data is entered in a GIS computer mapping program and database. Archeological, historical, biological, and mineralogical information is included.


  1. Have students arrange the paper cup markers on the gym floor or outdoors. Set the markers in a grid with each cup being of equal distance (at least 10 feet) from the cup behind, in front, and to each side of the other cups. Put a weight in each cup to keep it from moving around. Make sure one of the sides faces north.

X.... X.... X.... X.... X.... X

X.... X.... X.... X.... X.... X

X.... X.... X.... X.... X.... X

X.... X.... X.... X.... X.... X

X.... X.... X.... X.... X.... X

X.... X.... X.... X.... X.... X

  1. Teach students how to find direction by using a compass. Show them the four cardinal directions of north, south, east and west; how to find northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest; and, how to use a tape measure.
  2. Divide the class into groups of three students. (A caver has at least two other cavers with him/her.) Give each group a copy of the student sheet. Assign station numbers 1 through 5. The written instructions will direct each group along its personalized path through the grid markers.
  3. After each group has finished going through the course, have students move to the next station and complete that one.


Pictures contain the four main tools of Cave Survey: Laser (or tape measure), Clinometer, Compass, and Sketch pad

Download Pictures of Cave Surveying

Instructions for each team

Download Mapping a Cave Student Sheet

Last updated: September 20, 2016