Teach your teen how to make a compass and use it to determine north as part of your middle school geography lesson plans.
Do your kids know how to make a compass using materials found around the house? Does a compass point to the magnetic north or geographic north (and what is the difference)?
These are just two of the questions we answered during our geography lesson that covered directions.
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Now I know that everyone has easy access to portable GPS systems now, but knowing about directions is still an important life skill for middle schoolers to have.
There will be times that your electronics will fail and it would be nice if you and your teens knew about the cardinal rose, how to read a map, tell what direction you’re traveling, and even how to use a compass.
That’s what we’ve been studying in geography.
I wanted to share this fun geography project for middle school you can do to teach your older kids how to make a compass and determine north, using magnetic declination.
Using the Compass Rose
We love using atlases in our geography lessons because they’re filled with maps of many forms like political, thematic, and outline. One element every map will have in common is a compass rose.
A compass rose is a figure on a map that shows the cardinal directions, which are North, East, South, and West. Often, ordinal directions are included as well, northeast, southeast, southwest, and northwest.
The first, basic step in map reading and learning about directions is knowing about and understanding how to use the compass rose.
Directions With a Compass
How do you orient yourself using cardinal directions? You first need to know which direction is north. How do you find out which direction is north? With a compass.
“The first compasses were made from lodestones – naturally magnetic rocks. If a sliver of a lodestone was suspended so it could turn freely (say, in a bowl of water of hung by a string), it would automatically orient itself so that it pointed north. The reason for this is that the earth functions as a giant magnet, with the North Pole and the South Pole working as the two magnetic ends. The earth has such a strong magnetic field that the lodestones are affected but it. Later, people used lodestones to magnetize needles, which were put into compasses.”
– North Star Geography, Bright Ideas Press
Now that you have pointed your compass (and yourself) in the direction of north, you should be able to orient yourself using cardinal directions, right? Actually, the answer is NO.
Did you know there is one problem with compasses? A compass will point in the direction of the magnetic North Pole, however, that is DIFFERENT than the true geographic North Pole.
The magnetic North Pole and the geographic North Pole are about 500 miles apart. In addition, the magnetic North Pole moves at a rate of about 35 miles per year. The deviation between the two North Poles is called magnetic variation or magnetic declination.
If you are using directions to guide your travel, you want to move in the direction of true geographic north and not magnetic north, therefore you need to make a few adjustments.
“To compensate, researchers have made charts of declination that illustrate how much distortion your compass shows depending on where you are on the planet. In my hometown, the magnetic variation is about 11ᴼW – meaning that if I want to travel true north, I need to rotate east about 11ᴼ before I start moving.”
– North Star Geography, Bright Ideas Press
For more information about magnetic declination, visit the Geospatial Training and Analysis Cooperative. To determine the declination for your hometown, you can use the NOAA National Geophysical Data Center Magnetic Field Calculator.
As you can see, there’s a bit to using a compass, and it takes some practice to master the skill. Head outside to let your teen practice using a compass as his navigation device. It was one of our favorite outdoor geography activities.
I’ve created a helpful tool, called, How to Make a Compass & Determine North, that you can use to make your own compass at home when you’re studying about directions.
Inside you’ll find:
- The instructions for how to make a DIY compass
- Directional terms to define
- A compass rose to label
- A space to record your location using the NOAA Magnetic Field Calculator
Have your teen use the instructions inside to make his own compass and the information above on how to find true north to complete this hands-on activity.
To make the compass, you will need:
- How to Make a Compass & Determine North Printable
- Sewing needle, nail or paper clip
- Bowl of water
- Small piece of buoyant material, such as a piece of cork.
Teaching geography to middle school students can be a ton of fun, especially when you use hands-on activities like this one.
As we were working through this lesson, my kids were fascinated by the fact that north doesn’t always mean north and how that can make an enormous difference when you’re using a compass to help you get somewhere.
They were able to make their DIY compass to point north, but they’re happy that they have a GPS they can use for directions.
We hope your family has fun learning about directions. Don’t forget to use the information above about finding north along with the How to Make a Compass & Determine “North” printable to do this experiment yourself and to record your data.
More Fun Hands-on Geography Activities
- 10 Volcano Activities for Middle School
- World Geography Activities
- Sinkhole Experiment
- Latitude and Longitude Scavenger Hunt
- World Geography Games
How are you teaching about directions in your home school?