Example from MapMaker

How the MapMaker Tool Helps Us “Wrap Our Arms and Minds Around Our World”

This post was written by 2020 Education Fellow Anita Palmer.


Early on in my teaching career, I asked my school’s social studies department chair if I could ever teach geography. And they said, “Anita, we teach world history, don’t you think that’s enough geography for one department?” I felt that was my call to action to use geographic information systems (GIS) to teach geography through technology.

In 2019, I received a fellowship to help develop the next generation of National Geographic’s MapMaker, along with related curricula, activities, and workshops. My goal is to provide good content with robust tech tools that students will benefit from but that will also help teachers to teach the content they’re already required to teach. MapMaker is that first step into having a teacher feel comfortable with using technology to teach content using maps and technology. Once we can have the teacher feel comfortable, the gates open for the students. 

I liken GIS and MapMaker to a digital overhead projector on which you layer the maps. Except each one of those transparent layers has a spreadsheet of data digitally stapled to it. We’re hoping users will go into MapMaker to print their own maps. You could, for example, print a neighborhood map in black and white, choosing your scale. There’s nothing to install and it’s also free and mobile-compatible. The goal here is if students don’t have a laptop or a desktop, but do have a tablet or a phone, they can still have a mapping experience. 

MapMaker is also a really cool team player. The Resource Library is an amazing resource, and MapMaker will reside there — we hope it will become an interstitial piece for so many of those materials. For example, a teacher could say, “I want to teach plate tectonics.” Well, there will be a mapping activity that instructs you to get these three or four resources from the library and use them in this way, weaving them seamlessly into the activities in which the students or the teacher manipulates that map.

These digital mapping tools — MapMaker, ArcGIS, Survey123, and others — allow us to wrap our arms around the sheer amount of big data in our world and make sense of it; to categorize, classify, and to have our finite minds be able to wrap themselves around this infinite amount of data that our world is generating. With that big data, we’ve seen that students become so engaged with the tool and the output that they begin to ask more questions. And that’s the Geo-Inquiry Process. You start with a question, you go through the process of collecting data, analyzing, and visualizing it, but you always end up with another question. With these tools, students are immediately drawn to that next question because they want to find a solution. 

By asking that next question, by seeking out the data and the information surrounding that question, we can more efficiently make more informed decisions on how to find solutions for a problem. It can be a micro problem or a macro problem. For example, say that every time a student walks to school they trip on the sidewalk that’s cracked. They then can go out and begin to see their world transformed onto a map and begin to see patterns. They might say, “Wow, let me go and see how the sidewalks look in other neighborhoods.” And so they walk a mile and the sidewalks become less crumbly and it’s quite lovely, what’s the difference? You can’t come up with solutions until you can grapple with the why. Why are things the way they are? 

As you use MapMaker to dive into maps and technology, please send us your feedback! This next generation of MapMaker is rolling out in phases with improvements and new features, and I’m excited to hear what you think. We’ll have a feedback button coming soon; please share your thoughts so we can continue to become even better for you and your students.

Mapping is so personal and it can make our lives make so much more sense as well. GIS is that interstitial piece that helps us wrap our arms and minds around what’s happening in our world, in our neighborhoods, and globally. 


Visit our MapMaker collection to try the new version and share your feedback. And check out our activity prototype, Tectonic Plates and Physical Features, along with other activities here.

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