Where Am I?

By Clem Wings

Learning about maps.

Type of Web activity:
Varies --- lots of links here .

Materials / Software needed:
Needle, thread, magnet, and
Web browser

Grade Level:

Time involved:
as long as you want . . .

Created on:
August 6, 1999

November 2003

The Web Science Workshop lessons were created in cooperation with the Exploratorium Teacher Institute .


This site developed and maintained by Deborah Hunt and Eric Muller .

3601 Lyon St.
San Francisco, CA 94123

© The Exploratorium


A jumping-off place for learning about maps.

world map

Before you begin using the Web's many resources for mapping (see bottom of this page ), be sure students have a basic concept of directionality. Here are a couple of ideas to get them started:

1. Knowing Your Directions

If it is morning, the sun is basically in the east. If it is afternoon, the sun is basically in the west. Put your right side towards the east, and your left side towards the west, and you are facing north. If you're still not sure, try this: put a stick in the ground someplace sunny, sticking straight up. Mark the exact end of the shadow of your stick. Go away for an hour or so. Come back and mark the exact end of where the shadow is now. Put your left foot on the original mark, and your right foot on the new mark. You're facing north.

Another cool trick, if you have an analog watch:

  • If you're on Daylight Savings Time, turn the watch back an hour.
  • Line it up flat on the ground, facing up, so the short (hour) hand is pointing straight at the sun. South will be halfway between the hour hand and the 12:00 position.

What if it is cloudy? Or dark? If there are stars visible, you can learn to find the North Star (in the northern hemisphere) or the Southern Cross (in the southern hemisphere). But otherwise, you might want to have a compass.

Why? Try this exercise to see what happens to magnets here on earth if they are allowed to swing freely.

You can MAKE YOUR OWN COMPASS , which will be at least pretty accurate. You'll need a needle, a fairly strong magnet (most refrigerator magnets are good enough), and a long thread.

  • Attach one end of your needle to the magnet, and leave it overnight. (Test it the next day by trying to pick up a pin withthe needle alone.)
  • Tie the thread to the middle of the needle and let it hang. Once it stops spinning and bobbing, it will stabilize lined up in the same direction all the time. (Walk around a little and test it out.) We know it's lined up north/south, but to find out which is which you should go out in the sunshine and figure it out. Then you can notice if the pointed end or the eye end is north. Jot it down so you don't forget!
  • For a variation, you can stick your needle through a small cork and let it float in a glass of water instead of hanging it from a thread. Less tangling!
2.   Give and Get Directions : A Game.

Before you can play, you'll need to learn how long your own pace is. Measure and draw a chalk line 20 feet long (or lay a long tape measure down, and mark the beginning and the 20-foot mark). Now walk along the line at a normal pace, counting your steps. When you get to the end, divide the number of inches in 20 feet by the number of steps you took. That number will be the number of inches in your average pace.

Now get your compass, your calculator, and a partner.

Each person will:

  • Hide something within sight of some clear landmark, measuring how far (using their paces) and what direction (using their compass) it is from the landmark.
  • Write down the directions (e.g. 20 yards NW of the back door).
  • Trade papers and find each other's treasure!

Remember, neither the paces nor the compasses are exactly accurate, so look around a little when you get to where you think you're supposed to be.


Here are places to look for more specific mapping lesson plans, as well as a lot of general map resources on line:

[go back to the top]


Maps for Downloading/Copying
Interactive Map Sites
Map Collections and Links
  [go to top of page]

[go to top of links list]


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