Information about topographic maps, how they are drawn, and what the symbols on them mean can be found in From Maps to Models Background or at the USGS website.
It is important to show students why a topographic map is useful in the real world, and not just as a classroom exercise. Students tend to be familiar with reading regular road maps. It’s important to show students that when contour lines are overlaid on a regular map, information about the topographical landscape is revealed in the patterns among the swirls and squiggles of the contour lines.
The way I conduct my classes is first by showing my students a topo map of the neighborhood immediately surrounding the school then taking them on a walk that highlights the changes in local geography including a hill, a ridge, and a creek-carved valley. Each of these geographical features are important for geologists and other scientists to be able to recognize on a topo map. In my classes, the watershed walk was combined with the Sediment Study Project. Different classes went to different study sites along the creek (source, mid-stream, and mouth) to observe the flow of water and collect sediment samples. On our way there, we plotted a course that would take us by interesting geographical features that can be identified on the map. Before heading back, the students plotted a return route that minimized sudden elevation changes. The precise routes and features to visit will depend on your own local geography. Suggestions are included within the lesson plan below.
If a walk through your neighborhood is not possible, do the classroom portion only.
Previous experience reading and/or creating topographic maps.