Constructing a 3D bathymetry model

Jessica Kleiss
Lewis & Clark College
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Initial Publication Date: April 11, 2016 | Reviewed: May 10, 2019
Student groups build a scaled cardboard physical model of a seafloor feature in a box, and then close the box and affix a scale. Student groups then swap boxes and perform "soundings" to determine which seafloor feature lies beneath the surface. This is a good lab activity for an introductory oceanography course (advanced high school or college level).
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I use this activity in my Introductory Oceanography course at the college level, offered to non-geoscience majors, yet who are likely to major in science.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered:

1) Familiarity with common sea floor features such as seamounts, tablemounts, mid-ocean ridges, trenches, abyssal plains, coastal shelves, etc.
2) Familiarity with typical methods and instruments used to measure sea floor bathymetry, such as soundings, echo soundings, side-scanning sonar and multibeam sonar.

How the activity is situated in the course:

My course includes a weekly lab. This activity takes 2 lab periods to complete: one to build the box models, and one to take the ocean floor soundings. It would be feasible to complete in a 2-hour lab session. I include this lab early in the semester, usually as one of the first couple of labs.

National or State Education Standards addressed by this activity?:


Content/concepts goals for this activity:

1) Visualizing a bathymetric map as a 3D description of the sea floor.
2) Sea floor features (in coastal zones as well as deep-ocean basins)
3) Practices and challenges of observationally mapping the sea floor
4) The ocean is largely unexplored (ocean literacy concept #7)

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity:

1) Unit conversion and scale conversion between a topographic map and a scaled model
2) Experiment design, including sampling frequency and accuracy. The effect of the design on the outcome (in this case the contour map)
3) Quantitative reasoning

Other skills goals for this activity:

1) Dextrous manipulation of scissors, sharp edges, cardboard, and tape.
2) Project management, distribution and rotation of labor.
3) Manual graphing (eg. without a computer graphing program)

Description of the activity/assignment

To prepare for this lab, students read a section of the textbook about observational techniques to measure the seafloor bathymetry as well as the occurrence of common sea floor features, such as seamounts, coastal shelves, mid-ocean ridges, and trenches. In the first lab, groups of students are provided with a bathymetric map, cutting board, sharp edges, and plenty of cardboard. They trace some contours from the map onto tracing paper, and then cut those out of the cardboard to construct a scale model of their given sea floor feature. They attach the sheets of cardboard with double-sided tape, and affix it to the bottom of a rigid box. The box lid has a grid of holes drilled into it. They determine the scale of the map (cm of the model to km in the ocean, for example), and affix the scale to the outside of the box. This concludes the first lab session.

In the second lab session, each team of students is provided with a box from an unknown team. The box is closed, and they do not know what ocean feature lay inside. They use bamboo skewers to take "soundings" at each of the drilled holes in the box lid, and mark their measurements on a piece of graph paper. Then they construct a contour map from the soundings, and try to identify the sea floor feature in the box from a global seafloor topography map that is hanging on a wall.

Students complete guided questions about the process of constructing their 3D scaled model and exploring the unknown ocean.

Determining whether students have met the goals

1) Groups of students hand in their constructed scale model to demonstrate their ability to do unit conversion and accurate scale conversion.
2) Groups of students hand in their soundings, contour map, and interpretation to demonstrate manual graphing proficiency
3) Students answer guided questions to help them interpret this activity as a metaphor for ocean exploration. (so they don't think they just did a lab about cutting cardboard!)

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Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

See uploaded documents for links to possible bathymetric maps