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The Challenge: Direction and Scale

Maps are made for many reasons, and as a result, they vary in content. Some maps made for general purposes may show roads, towns and cities, rivers and lakes, parks, and state and local boundaries. Maps also illustrate the history of civilization—battle maps by soldiers, exploration maps by empire builders, thematic maps by scientists.

Students may have often used road maps, but they may not have experience in reading other types of maps. Help them learn the following key points to understanding how a map represents geographical reality.

  • Mapmakers use north, south, east, and west to describe direction.
  • Mapmakers usually orient their maps to show north at the top.
  • It is possible to describe the relationship of one place to another. One place is north, south, east, or west of another place. This kind of orientation is known as relative location.
  • Longitude and latitude, a grid of imaginary lines created by geographers, help to identify the absolute location of any point on the Earth’s surface.
  • The relationship between a distance on the map and the corresponding distance on the ground is known as scale.
  • Using the distance scale, it is possible to determine the actual distance on the ground between two points shown on a map.
  • A large-scale map shows a small land area in great detail. A small-scale map shows less detail, but a larger land area.