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Ten Lessons for Teaching Geography Using Corn Mazes

Topics: Maps, mental maps, spatial organization, physical processes, cultural mosaics, economic networks on the landscape, human modification of earth's surface, resource distribution, physical systems

Length: Varies

Type of Resource Being Described: Hands on Activity

Corn mazes are paths that are cut or plowed in a field of corn (maize). Like tracing a maze on paper with a pencil, in a corn maze the human being becomes the "tracer". Because (1) corn mazes are maps, (2) mazes and maps have fascinated people for centuries, and (3) maps are essential tools in the study of geography, corn mazes provide a unique and fun way to learn about scale, relative and absolute location, land use, and other geographic themes. There are websites that list the locations of mazes, but not all of the lessons require you to visit a corn maze.


How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process, and report information. These corn maze lessons use maps and aerial photographs at several scales., How to use mental maps (a person's internalized picture of a part of Earth's surface) to organize information about people places, and environments. Students compare their mental maps of the corn maze to a map that was previously made of the corn maze and a map that the students create., How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth's surface., The physical and human characteristics of places. Students are asked to think about the distribution of corn and corn mazes versus population centers, topography, and land use., The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth's surface. Students are asked to think about why corn and other crops are grown where they are, and the influence that climate and land use have on cultivation., The characteristics, distribution and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics. Students consider the influence of culture on the cultivation of corn., The patterns and networks of economic interdependence Students examine the products made from corn and how these products are transported., How human actions modify the physical environment., How physical systems affect human systems. Students consider how humans have modified the environment in corn cultivation, and examine topography, land use, and the influence of the land on cultivation., The changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources Students examine the products made from corn and how these products are transported., How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future. Students use geography to understand how to interpret maps and present-day land use.


1. Mazes, Corn Mazes, Shapes, and Navigation

Grades: All

Discuss the concept of a maze with your students, why they are fascinating, and the kinds of materials in which human-navigated mazes are constructed. Examine corn maze websites and discuss the most common shapes in which corn mazes are created. Ask how navigating through a maze compares to daily navigation through streets of a community. Before visiting a corn maze with your students, obtain a map of the maze. Time how long it takes the whole group (or smaller teams of students) to find the center, and discuss the challenges involved.

2. Wayfinding and Directions

Grades: All

Select and identify locations for each group of students to find. Have each group of students write directions to the location, using relative directions such as ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘straight ahead’, and so on. Regroup and ask the students to give their directions to another team, without that team knowing where the destination is. How easy were the directions to follow? Repeat this activity using cardinal directions, such as ‘north’, and ‘southeast’. Regroup and compare the ease of using cardinal directions versus relative directions. Is there a difference? Why? Discuss: When are cardinal directions more appropriate in day-to-day living, and when are relative directions more suitable?

3. Wayfinding Comparison: Day versus Night

Grades: Secondary through University

If you cannot conduct a nighttime field trip as a scheduled class event, encourage the students to visit the maze at night (but only if it's open to the public after dark!). If that is not possible, you can still discuss the following: Compare the difficulty of finding a selected location during the daytime versus at night. Discuss: Is wayfinding more difficult at night? Why or why not? How does the location of the sun help us in our wayfinding, besides simply providing light?

4. Maps and GPS (Global Positioning Systems)

Grades: Elementary Through Secondary

How does a map or an aerial photograph of the corn maze help you in navigating the maze? If possible, have the students walk the entire maze and then create a map of the paths. Compare student-created maps to the maze's official map or aerial photograph. How well did the students' maps match the site's official map? What were the challenges? What helped?

Visit a corn maze with GPS (Global Positioning Systems) receivers to record waypoints as your students walk each path (or a subset that you designate, or divide the group so that the entire maze is mapped). Upload these points into a Geographic Information System (GIS). Plot these points on top of an aerial photograph or a USGS topographic map of the area. Download free digital topographic maps by going to the USGS Store and clicking on "Map Locator". Download free aerial photographs through Earth Explorer.

Print your GPS-created corn maze plot. Include the following map components along with your plot: Title, Orientation, Date, Author, Legend, Symbols, Scale, Grid, Index, and Source.

5. GPS Navigation

Grades: Elementary Through University

Visit a corn maze with GPS Global Positioning Systems) units. Ask students to navigate to predefined locations using their GPS. Discuss the concept of a geocache and visit geocaching websites. Hide geocaches for students to find using their GPS (check with the corn maze operator first to make sure this is acceptable). Even easier, set up "virtual geocaches" -- known locations where you do not need to visit the site ahead of time.

Discuss: What are the challenges on finding an absolute location with a GPS that exist in a corn maze, where you are confined to certain predefined routes?

6. Land Cover and Corn Maze Locations

Grades: Upper elementary through university.

Examine the USGS Land Cover map of the conterminous U.S., or purchase a paper copy from the USGS Store. This map shows cropland, scrub, forests, urban areas, grassland, and other land cover types. Examine the map key. How many land cover classifications exist on this map? In which areas of the U.S. would you expect to find corn mazes? Why? What is the influence of climate and soil on the growing of corn? Browse Web sites for corn maze locations. How well do the locations match your predictions? What are factors that influence the locations of where corn is grown? What are factors that influence the locations of where corn mazes are constructed? Compare a map of corn maze locations to the location of cities. What influences do cities have on the locations of corn mazes? Where else in the world besides the U.S. is corn grown?

7. Interpreting Topographic Maps and Aerial Photographs

Grades: Upper elementary through university.

Examine a USGS topographic map and an aerial photograph of the area of your corn maze. Download free digital topographic maps by going to the USGS Store and clicking on "Map Locator". Download free aerial photographs through Earth Explorer.

Discuss: What forces shape the landscape near the cornfield? What are the dominant natural hazards in this area? In which direction does this area drain? Into what river(s) does this area drain? Into what ocean do the rivers empty?

You could examine USGS topographic maps or a USGS national map of river systems to aid you. Maps of the river systems for each state can be downloaded from the National Map.

Trace the path of rain falling on this field to the ocean, including all rivers along the way. What is the river distance from this field to the ocean?

What is the elevation of your cornfield? Would you characterize the terrain of your field as flat, moderate, or steep? What do you think is the maximum slope on which a cornfield can be planted? What constraints operate on the slope of a cornfield? Compare the terrain constraints for corn to other crops. What other crops are grown in this area? Why? What percentage of the county you are in would you estimate as being cultivated for corn? The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has corn production maps.

From the aerial photograph, what would you say is the dominant land use in your cornfield's region? Why? Compare this land use to the land use based on an aerial photograph around your school. What are the differences? Why?

Compare the cornfield's elevation to the elevation based on a topographic map of your school. Is the cornfield higher or lower in elevation of your school? Why? What landforms are present? How have humans modified the landscape in cultivating corn and other crops?

8. Exploring Corn Through Mathematics

Grades: Upper elementary through university.

Examine a sample one-square-meter of corn in your field away from a path. Count the number of ears of corn on a few stalks. Estimate the average number of ears of corn per stalk. Estimate the number of stalks in your square meter of corn. Examine a different square meter of corn and compare your estimates to that above. What differences did you find, and why? What factors influence how productive corn is? Compute the number of stalks and ears of corn in one square kilometer of corn. If a county had 1000 square kilometers of corn under cultivation, how many stalks and ears of corn would it harvest?

9. Investigating Corn

Grades: Upper elementary through university.

Visit sites like the U.S. Department of Agriculture for supporting information.

What exactly is corn? Is it native to North America or was it introduced? How long has corn (or maize) been a domesticated crop? What is corn used for? What products that you use daily are made from corn? What products that you use occasionally are made from corn? How can corn be used in industry, consumer markets, and in other ways? What parts of corn can be used? What effect do the values of the culture influence what types of crops are grown? What does the cultivation of corn say about the culture of the United States? What do we value? Where are products made from corn produced? Why are they located there? How does the corn from your field reach the consumer? Trace the possible routes. What transport mechanisms are in place to transport the various corn products?

10. Investigating Soils

Grades: Secondary and university. The first two questions may be used in upper elementary.

There are many resources on soils available at the Education site for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Examine the soil under your feet in the maze. Describe the texture, color, grains, and other characteristics. Use the "Texture by Feel" diagram to classify it. How has cultivation affected the surface and composition of the soil? Interview the landowners, if possible.

Examine soil data for the region around the maze using the USDA's Web Soil Survey. What soil type(s) underlie your corn maze? What is the official "state soil" for your state? What soil type(s) are best for growing corn? How do the soil types that are best for growing corn compare to the soils that are best for other crops? What fertilizers and pesticides are used on cornfields? Why? What are the inherent dangers in fertilizers and pesticides?

Take a soil sample if possible to your school and conduct soil tests using a commercial kit. Perform a similar text on soil collected at your school. Report on the results of your soil tests.

Report on the results of your soil test.