Road Scholar

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In Road Scholar, participants are to be able to interpret, collect data, and make conjectures from maps, usually highway and/or topographic maps. Competitors must also be able to draw maps. Participants are given 50 minutes to answer questions pertaining to the map.

Road Scholar is one of the classic Science Olympiad events. Road Scholar or another mapping event has been used in all but two years of Science Olympiad history. Recently, it has only been an event in division B. The most similar event in divison C would be Remote Sensing. Geocaching and Get Your Bearing are also somewhat similar to Road Scholar. Geocaching was a trial event at George Washington University 2008.

The Event

Road Scholar can be split up into up to five sections: Topographic maps, or quadrangles, state highway maps, map drawing, topographic profiling, and the Universal Transverse Mercator system. You will always have topographic and highway maps on the test, and you will often have at least one of the other three as well. The test will need to be completed within the fifty minute time period.

The Basics

You need to know the very basics of maps to begin working on Road Scholar. You need to know all of the directions. North, South, East, West, Northeast, Southeast, Northwest, and Southwest. Even though this may sound stupid, you also need to know how to fold a map. If the map is folded incorrectly, you may get a penalty for not cleaning up properly. After you know the basics, learn everything found below.

Topographic Maps (Quadrangles)

Quadrangles, or quads for short, are a key component of Road Scholar. There are many things that you need to learn for using quadrangles. Some of these things can be found below. Look below to see what a quadrangle looks like, and where to find what is located on it.

Road Scholar example map.JPG

Map Location- This can be found in the top right corner of the quad. On the first line it will say the location, and on the second it will say the state.
Neat Lines- These are the outer boundaries of the map. They keep the map "neat".
Surrounding Quads- You can find out about the eight bordering quads by looking in one of two places depending on the map. There could either be a diagram in the bottom margin of the map that will show the eight surrounding quads, OR just outside the neat lines, there will be the name of the quad from each of the eight surrounding directions.
Graticule Tick Marks- There are four graticule tick marks on each quad. These divide the map into 9 sectors, one for each of the eight directions and one for the center. Often times, a test will ask you to find an object in a "sector". The sectors are labeled from left to right across the map. This is what the sectors look like: Each of the intersections on this diagram are where graticule tick marks would be.

Road Scholar sectors.jpg

Latitude and Longitude- Latitude and Longitude measure the distance north and south of the equator, and east and west of the prime meridian, respectively. They can be broken down into three increments: The most basic form, degrees, are identified by a small “o” following and above a number (80°). Degrees can be broken down into minutes. There are sixty minutes per degree. Minutes are identified by an apostrophe (80°15’). They can be broken down into seconds. Likewise, there are sixty seconds per minute. Seconds are identified by two apostrophes (80°15’30’’). Always be as specific as possible when writing latitude and longitude measurements.
  • Latitude measures distances North or South of the equator. It is important that you put either an N or an S after the coordinates, or points will be taken off. To calculate the latitude of a location, take the distance from the lower sector boundary to object (in mm) and divide it by the N-S distance across sector (in mm) and multiply by 150. This is the distance to object/in seconds. So you simply take the degrees from the bottom of the sector, and add the number of seconds you get. A latitude might look like this: 39°45'30"N.
  • Longitude measures distances East and West of the prime meridian. As with Latitude, it is important that you label E or W after the coordinates, or points will be taken off. You can calculate longitude by taking the distance from easterly sector boundary to object (in mm) and dividing it by the E-W distance across sector (in mm), then multiplying that answer by 150. This is the distance to the object in seconds also. So you have to take the longitude from the eastern sector boundary, and add the number of seconds you get. A longitude might look like this: 110°39'25" W.
Series- All quads used in Road Scholar are in the 7.5 minute series.
Scale- All quads used in Road Scholar have a scale of 1:24000. Both scale and series are common questions on tests, so be sure you know the right answer.
Legend- This can be found in the bottom right corner of the quad. This may show important information on how to read the quad, for example, it may explain what types of roads are featured on the map.
Contour Interval- This is found in the center of the bottom margin of the quad. This number indicates the number of feet between each contour line. If you're finding the elevation of something, you must look at the contour interval first. In addition, like series and scale, many tests will ask what the contour interval is. Unlike series and scale, however, this number may vary.
  • Contour Lines are lines throughout the map that indicate the elevation of a location. Combined with the contour interval, you will be able to find the elevation of every point on the map through contour lines.
  • Index Contour Lines- These dark contour lines will also display the elevation. They are extremely important when calculating elevation.
Magnetic Declination- There is a diagram located at the center of the bottom margin of the quad. This diagram will have three (sometimes two) lines coming out of it. The one straight up is true north. One of the other two will say MN. This is magnetic north. The magnetic declination is the number of degrees between true north and magnetic north, and it is written right next to line MN.
Public Land Survey System (PLSS)- For many tests, you will be asked to write out a location using PLSS. This may seem difficult to write at first, but it’s easy to figure out with practice. First, you will have to identify township and range. If you look on the bottom and side neat lines of the quad, you will see something that might say T. 5 S and R. 5 E. T stands for township and R stands for range. Be sure you get the right township and range, you will need this later. Within each of these divisions, there are 36 sections. You can find the number of the section on the quad in the center of the section. This, too, is important to PLSS. Finally, each section can be split into four quarters, NE, NW, SE, and SW. Within each of those quarters there can be another four quarters, once again being NE, NW, SE, and SW. Locate which 1/16 your point is in, (i.e. NW ¼ of the NE ¼ or SW ¼ of the SW ¼). Now you have all the information you need to use PLSS.
Here’s how to write PLSS descriptions: First, start with the 1/16 your point is in (let’s say it’s: SE ¼ NW ¼). Then, add the section (SE ¼ NW ¼ 20) Finally, add township and range. (SE ¼ NW ¼ 20 T 6 S R 8 W) Congratulations, you have successfully written out your location in PLSS form! Please note that not all states use PLSS so not all quads have PLSS on them.

Additional Information

A chart showing many of the topo symbols

There is much more to learn about topographic maps besides the above. The following is not mentioned on the example map, but still important.

Map Colors- There are 6 major colors on a topographic map: black, blue, brown, green, red, and purple. Each means a different thing. black can denote features like roads and buildings, blue identifies water features, brown, contours, green, vegetation, red, important roads, and purple, revisions.
Map Symbols- The map symbols needed during the event can be found here: Map Symbols
It is very important that you have at least one symbols sheet with you during an event. Many questions will ask about certain symbols, and having a symbols sheet is practically an unwritten law for the build-a-map portion of the test. An example of a topo sheet is on the right.
Survey Control Marks- These are specific points on a quad that give the exact elevation of a place that is not found on a countour line. You need to know control station marks, spot elevations, and benchmarks. The symbols for each of these can be found in the topographic map symbols booklet.
Azimuth- Azimuth is the degrees from one object to another. This is found using a full circle (360) protactor. An azimuth can be up to 359 degrees. It looks like this: 25°. You should line up the protractor so that 0 is facing north. Then, use a ruler or string to find the exact degrees between the two places.
Bearing- Bearing is found by using a full circle protractor. The direction N or S is added in front of the degrees, and E or W is added afterward. It looks like this: N 25° E. Like an azimuth, you should use a ruler or sting to find the exact degrees. 0 degrees is always facing north or south, and 90 degrees is always facing west or east. You can only measure bearing from 0 to 90 degrees. Azimuth and bearing are easy to confuse, and are frequently tested, so be prepared.
Measuring Distances- To measure distances on a quadrangle, you'll need a piece of scrap paper. Line up the piece of paper between the two objects placing a small dash where each of them are. Then, bring the piece of paper down to the map scale in the bottom margin. Line up the piece of paper with whichever distance you want to measure in. If the space between the two dashes is larger than the measurement line, make another dash where the end of the line is. Then, measure to as exact a distance as possible.
Stream Gradient- Stream gradient is found in feet per thousand feet, or ft/1000 ft. To find stream gradient, first measure the section of the stream you wish to use with a string. Then, figure out the change in elevation between the beginning and ending points of the portion of the stream. Input these amounts into the formula "change in elevation over distance x 1000" (C.I.E/Distance x 1000) to find the answer. You will need to use sting for this to accurately find the distance along the stream/river.
Slope Gradient- Similar to stream gradient, use the formula "change in elevation over distance x 100" to find the answer.
Stream Flow Direction- The contour lines located on the stream will always point upstream. For example, if the countour line is pointing NW, the stream will be flowing to the SE.

Profiling Quadrangles

You may be asked to profile a quadrangle as part of the test. To make a topographic profile, place a piece of scrap paper between the two points that identify where the profile is to be created. Mark on the paper at every point where the paper crosses a contour line. Label these marks with the elevation of the contour. Now, place the edge of the paper along graph paper. Make the Y-Axis of the graph elevation and the X-Axis distance. Make a scatter plot of the points, and connect them with a line. You have completed your profile.

This is an example of a topographic profile from Laboratory Manual for Physical Geology by Zumberge and Rutford


Universal Transverse Mercator

You may notice smaller numbers on the margins of the map, something along the lines of two smaller numbers, two larger numbers, and several more smaller numbers. These are UTM markings, or Universal Transverse Mercator. The blue tick marks along the neat lines of the map are also used for UTM. The numbers on the left and right sides are north-south markings, called ‘’northing’’. The numbers on the top and bottom of the map are east-west markings, or ‘’easting’’. The UTM projection uses the metric system, so if you aren’t familiar with it by now- which you should be- get used to it. As accuracy increases (the length of the numbers), the area indicated by the numbers decreases.

Here’s an example of UTM: 10 S 0559741 4282182. The first number and letter represent the zone you are in, the first string of numbers is easting, and the second is northing.

To accurately locate a position using UTM, you may need to use a grid overlay tool. This tool allows you to find a location within a 100m square accurately. These are available here, among other places.

For more information on UTM


MRGS is an abbreviated form of UTM. It is rarely seen on the tests though.


Universal Polar Stereographic system is for the poles. It operates on the basics of UTM. There is easting and northing. There are only two areas it covers. It covers two circles one at the north pole and one at the south. The middle of the south pole and north pole are at South 2,000km E 2,000km N or for the north pole, North 2,000km E 2,000km N.

Highway Maps

State Highway Maps are also a large part of the event. There is slightly less to learn about highway maps than quads. Here is an example of one: State Highway Map

Mileage Chart- This chart gives you the exact mileage between cities. It's found on the side or back of map. Only major cities are located on the mileage chart. If the cities you are trying to find the distance between are not on it, you must use the numbers next to the highways on the map to find the mileage. Adding together all of the little black numbers or red numbers (on highways) between cities also determines mileage. It's a good idea to write down each of the numbers, as it is easy to miss a number.
Travel Time Chart- This chart is on all the maps that I have used. It shows the estimated travel time between locations by the most direct route and without any "pit-stops". Usually it is found on the same side of the map as the state that it serves. It also has only major cities on it.
Grid System- Highway maps have a grid system. Go to the number and letter, and bring your fingers together. If you are looking for a specific city, you can find the city on the chart on the side of the map. Next to the city will be the grid description.
Population- The population of a city is usually found on the side of the map next to the city name. You can also find the grid location there.
Inset Maps- These insets are usually found on the back of the state highway maps. They show a close-up view of a city or region. Questions may be asked about a specific intersection or road on that inset. If you cannot locate something on the main highway map, the inset maps are the next place to check.
Legend- Like with quads, there is also a legend found on a highway map. It is usually found near one of the corners, although sometimes it is on the back of the map. The legend will define what some symbols mean. It depends on what is on the map to determine what will be in the legend. However, the different types of highways are always in the legend.
Scale- It shows how many miles and kilometers are represented by an inch. It is usually found next to the legend.

Map Drawing

Map drawing, or “Build-A-Map”, can be included in Road Scholar tests. It is imperative that you have a map symbols sheet for this portion of the test. You will be given a blank square and asked to create a map based on instructions given on the test.

Here is a practice map drawing test:

The square represents section 12. The scale of the map is 1:15625. This means that 1 inch is equal to 1/4 of a mile, or 1 inch is equal to 15625 inches.

  1. Starting from the SW corner of the map, draw a primary highway at an azimuth of 77°.
  2. Place a perennial lake directly South of the primary highway in the SE 1/4 SE 1/4 12.
  3. Place an orchard in the SW 1/4 NE 1/4 12, so that it only covers the western 20 acres.
  4. Draw two houses, a church, and a cemetery on the south side of the primary highway in the SE 1/4 SW 1/4 12. On the north side in the same spot, draw a house and a school.
  5. Place a benchmark with an elevation of 300 feet directly to the East of the orchard.
  6. Draw in a power transmission line which enters 15625" west of the NE corner at an azimuth of 147°.
  7. Draw a graticule tick mark in the NW 1/4 NW 1/4 12.

Here is the answer key:

Road scholar map building.gif

Tips for the Competition

  • It is wise to split the test between you and your partner while in a competition because of the time limit. You may think that 50 minutes is a long time, but when you get into the competition the time seems to fly by. Try to use different state maps while practicing so that you have more experience with different states and terrain. Also, purchase or find different tests to practice with. Finally, try to memorize important formulas such as stream gradient, slope gradient, latitude and longitude.
  • You are allowed to bring a binder, and pretty much everything you want, so there’s no reason to come to a competition unprepared. If you have lots of information in your binder, make an index, so you know where to find things. You may also want to bring a back with the following equipment that is crucial to your success: A ruler, a protractor, pencils, scratch paper, a calculator (preferably a TI-30X or TI-34), a length of string for measuring distances, a map symbol sheet, and perhaps even a magnifying glass for locating hard to find objects.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask if you are missing materials or need clarification on a test question. The event supervisors should have no reason to disqualify you if you need a map or want clarification on the wording of a question.
  • Pay attention. It’s easy to accidentally misread NE as NW, for example. Always make sure you know what the test is asking and how to write the proper answer for every question. You should also double-check your work, if you have time.
  • Practice often, especially with games such as “I Spy”. It will pay off when you’re trying to locate a hard-to-find object on the map.
  • The majority of the time, the Road Scholar test will be in a story-format, with the answers being certain words of the story that have been ommited. Usually the first page of the test will have no questions and all background into the characters in the story. Although some of the problems may need context, it is not wise to read the entire story, as that sucks up valuable time. Go to the first question immediately, read the few lines before the question and, if you still need more, go back further.


Participants should become familiar with reading topographic maps as well as road maps, and knowing what symbols mean on a map. See the USGS for a list of road map symbols. A good study tool is the coaches’ handbook which goes in depth with all the things you need to know.

Many practice tests can be found on here. You may need to order maps from USGS to complete the tests.

Profiling Exercises

For most of these, you can use them over again just change the points between which you have to profile to make it harder or easier or to quiz your partner!

Topo Excercises
fill in this map and than create a profile for it draw in the contour lines another topo profile exercise harder topo profile exercise river topo profiling ex
topo ex1
contour lines ex
topo ex2
topo ex3
river ex
glacier profiling another river profiling Another easy profile
another river profile
another easy one

Helpful sites

Includes some general information, how to make a topographic profile, measuring stream gradient, and a sample map.
How to profile
More Information
Understanding UTM.