Road Scholar

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Course content was made from ScioVirtual Road Scholar lead faculty, including:
Michael Kong, a three-time gold medalist at National Science Olympiad. Michael has taught Advanced Road Scholar and Rocks & Minerals with Rebecca.
Michelle Li, the Dynamic Planet captain for Mason HS Science Olympiad. Michelle taught Protein Modeling, Dynamic Planet, and Earth Science Fundamentals.
Michael teaching the live Advanced Road Scholar course at ScioVirtual.
Michael teaching the live Advanced Road Scholar course at ScioVirtual.

Road Scholar is an event all about mapping: interpreting topographic and highway maps, and creating your own hand-drawn maps and topographic profiles. The great thing about this event is that it is one of the few in Scioly that has not changed from year to year — basically, once you master it, you’re set. So, it’s definitely a good event to invest in.

First, before all else, print the USGS Topographic Map Symbols and put it in your binder. Make sure you print in color, because color is important. For example, bodies of water must be blue, while land grids and important roads are red. You will need these symbols for both reading topographic maps and drawing maps.

Next, to learn how to read topographic maps. This is fairly straightforward, as long as you understand the basic principles behind how these maps are made. The contour lines on the map connect points of equal elevation, and the elevation of the lines increases at a constant interval called the contour interval. The contour interval is written at the bottom of the map, but you can calculate it as well. These notes on the right contain some other topographic map features.

Also at the bottom of the map is the scale, which says something like 1:24,000. This means one inch on the map equals 24,000 inches or 2,000 feet on the ground. This is helpful for questions asking about the distance between things. Hot tip: if the scale is 1:24,000, take a piece of paper and create tick marks on the edge that are one inch apart. You can then hold these tick marks up to the map to find how many inches are between two places, then convert.

Now, onto drawing maps. The document on the left contains the notes I used (scroll down to the text that’s in red). Two quick notes: 1) You will have to draw straight lines and very specific angles for this section, so having a ruler and protractor is a necessity. 2) Map drawing takes a LOT of practice, because there are different instructions on each test. For example, one test might ask you to draw a railroad; if you’ve never done a practice test with a railroad before, you might not know how to do that.

To the right is an example of a student-created map question:

Drawing maps was my favorite part of this event, but it took a lot of work to master. There was a period of time where I would take one practice test daily and only do the map-drawing section. You by no means need to practice this intensely, but you definitely need experience under your belt by the time you compete.

Finally, some tests will ask you to construct a topographic profile based on a topographic map. You’re basically drawing a cross-section of what a landform would look like if you cut it open, using only information from the map. I think the slides on the right provide a great overview of this process. This probably takes less practice than map-drawing to master, because all topographic profiles are made by the same process, but it’s still something you should learn as its often a neglected portion of the test.

If you’re more of a visual learner (and because Road Scholar is a very visual event), try the video on the right to see a profile.

Quick note: This video doesn’t acknowledge it, but make sure to label any roads, streams, etc. that cross your profile; for example, I would draw a blue line crossing the topographic profile wherever Woodland Brook intersects line BC. Some tests don’t require this, but others will — always do it to be safe.

And finally, here are some additional resources on miscellaneous Road Scholar topics. These should help fill in the gaps for the written / map interpretation portion of the test. There’s also a schedule linked; this was the syllabus for ScioVirtual’s Road Scholar class, but feel free to use it as a way to structure your learning as well.