Contours, Curves & Lines

lrNancyOnline Lesson Plan

Contours, Curves & Lines

In this lesson, students will learn how straight lines and curves function in both art and the science of conservation tillage by building model “hills” and experimenting on them.

Lesson Plan by Nancy Childs, Visual Arts Curriculum Specialist, Lincoln (Nebraska) Public Schools.


lrArt0401Suggested grade level: 3rd-6th. The student will:

  • As art creators, create physical models of hills, using clay coils and sand in order to analyze the effects of contour plowing.
  • As Aestheticians, look at works of art from the 30s to see how concepts and language from farming are connected to concepts and language in art.


Bell ringer –

standards02Question: Who knows the definition of “line?”
Answer: A line is a point moving through space.
Question: How many ways can a line move through space?
Answer: Just about as many as you can think of. Have the students make a list of possible paths that lines could move. Ask a couple of the students to demonstrate these possibilities by getting up and walking some paths.

Or …

The teacher could call the class to order and then pretend that a student across the room has asked her/him a question by saying, “Oh, Katie, did you need my help? I’ll be right there.” And then the teacher walks a very convoluted, curving, zigzag path to get to the students. Along the way she/he keeps saying, “I’m on my way. I’ll be there in just a bit”. The class will hopefully begin to laugh as they watch the teacher walk this rather crazy path. One student might ask, “why don’t you just walk in a straight line?” The teacher would respond, “why would that matter?” And the class would say something to the effect that a straight path would get you there quicker. The teacher might pause to concider this and then say, “is a straight line always the best path?” The class might say yes, and then the teacher says, “well, let’s just think about this,” and move to the initial inquiry questions.

Initial Inquiry: What difference would it make if you plowed a field with straight lines or curved/contour lines?

What is a contour? How would this benefit farmers?

How do you think they figured out the difference between one method and another?


The Resources

Each group of students needs the following:

  • A large cake pan or cookie sheet with sides
  • A bowl that will fit, inverted, in the pan listed above
  • Plastic wrap
  • Paper towels
  • Oil based (non-hardening) clay
  • Measuring cups, 1/3 or 1/4
  • Watering can with a small spout – so that water can be poured slowly
  • Sand

Links from within the Wessels Living History Farm site. [Note that clicking on these links will open a new browser window. Just close it and you’ll be back to this page.] Direct the students to this pages to learn about soil conservation techniques.


The Process

Divide students into groups with three to five students per group.

  1. Wrap the outside of the bowl in plastic wrap. Place it upside-down in the cake pan or on the cookie sheet.
  2. Have the students roll out coils of the oil-based clay about 1/2 inch in diameter. The students will use these coils to cover the bowl(s).
    • Some of the student groups will cover the bowl with the coils, laid, side-by-side in straight rows.
      • Top view
      • Side view
    • The other student group(s) will cover the bowl in curved coils, starting from the center and moving outward.
      • Top view
      • Side view
  3. Pour 1/4 cup of water in to the watering can. Slowly pour this water from the can onto a bowl covered with straight coils. Watch to see how long it takes for water to run down off the bowl into the pan.
  4. Empty the watering can. Add another 1/4 cup water. Pour this slowly on a bowl with the curved coils. How long does it take for the water to run down to the pan?
  5. Why did it take longer for the water to spill off the bowl with curved coils into the pan? What difference would this make for a farmer? Let the students ponder this question with out input from the teacher. The students may develop an hypothesis that the curved lines, on a curved surface, hold more water, for a longer period of time than straight lines.
  6. Test this hypothesis by creating two hills from sand.
    • Fill the bowl with damp sand.
    • Invert this on the cookie sheet or cake pan.
    • Carve, or “plow” straight lines in the sand to match the pattern that the straight coils made.
    • Fill the bowl with sand again, invert it and carve or “plow” curved lines in it – in the same pattern as the curved clay coils.
  1. Repeat steps 3 and 4.
  2. Ask the questions from step 5 again. did they confirm their hypothesis?
  3. Examine the pictures on the Contour Plowing page and read the text to see how farmers applied this information to their land.

To extend this more into art, go back through the lesson and underscore all of the words that are part of the language of art – shape, line, contour, flow, pattern, coil, carve. Working with a reproduction of a work of art (it would be nice to use one from the 30s, see below) ask the students to look for lines, shape and patterns in the work of art. Can they use their finger to trace the “contour” of a shape or object that they see in the picture? Can they read the “flow” of the picture? Is there a pathway of lines or contours that move the viewer’s eye through the picture?

Important Art Movements and Artists from the 30s –


Learning Advice

Cover the bowls with plastic wrap to make clean up easier – take the oil clay coils off to store for future use and throw the plastic away – this way you won’t spend time trying to wash the oil clay residue off the bowls.

Have half of the group(s) cover the bowl with straight coils and the other half cover the bowls with curved coils.



Students should be able to observe that the water flows more slowly down the clay or sand “hills” that they created that were covered with curved lines. When water is poured on the “hills” with straight lines the water follows the path of the lines and flows right off the hill.

Talk to the students about how industries make models to help them learn about the effects of design ideas.


Assessment Activity

Students will write a paragraph that summarizes their observations of this experiment. What did they think might have happened when they poured water on the “hills.” What did they see happening? What does this mean to them.


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