“A Field Trip Anywhere”: Try This MapMaker Project With Your Students

Educator Tama Nunnelley wrote this post.

If you could take your students on a field trip anywhere, where would you go? What kinds of things would you like them to see or learn on this quest? Maybe you would take them back to a historical time period or specific event so they could see it with their own eyes. Perhaps you would take them to a series of locations where they would interact with historical or current events. Well, you can do just that without ever leaving your classroom. How? With digital maps!

I often take my students to places in their own community, around the globe, or back in time by combining geographic skills with historical study. Geography isn’t just for geographers or geography classes. It plays an important part in each social studies class. Studying geography teaches young people a wide range of useful skills for the workforce, including critical thinking and problem solving. Some of the fastest-growing careers involve the use of geographic skills, including fluency with geographic information systems (GIS).

One way I transport my students to different locations so they can use their own analytical skills is with National Geographic’s MapMaker. (Note: this project uses MapMaker Classic, which is free to educators alongside the newly revamped MapMaker.) MapMaker is designed for student practice with GIS. It does not require a lot of cartography skills to use and is a perfect tool to do cross-curricular activities and share maps as primary source materials.

To develop the attitudes, skills, and knowledge of a geographer while exploring their own world, each year my students undertake a semester-long project to create a road trip to a select part of the world based on their grade level. The project combines math, English language arts, science, and social studies. Geography and Community subject students are tasked with travel within our state. American History students can travel within the borders of the United States.  World History students have the entire globe at their disposal. I have done this project across multiple middle school grades and have adapted it for high schoolers and college first years. I believe it could be easily adjusted to all age ranges.

The first step in this process is to have students select three locations for travel by exploring in MapMaker. After choosing their locations, students plot each one on their digital maps; this involves selecting the pin they want to use for their location and placing it onto the map. They can navigate to their specific location by finding its latitude and longitude (click the bottom icon on the menu on the left-hand side of the screen for these settings) or zooming in or out using the “+” and “-” icons in the top left of the screen. Then, they select their pin of choice from the menu. They can select numbered markers or scroll down the menu for something more fun. Then, they can click on the correct location to add their pin.

Next, students use the mileage tool to see the distance between locations and create a budget for their trip. They are given a certain amount of money based on current prices and plan their travel around that total. They have to account for how many people they take with them and regular travel expenses like airfare, gasoline, hotels, and meals. They might also have to pay a fee to see the historical site on their itinerary. They select methods of travel and keep a spreadsheet of expenses. We use MapMaker to see where these locations are and use the mileage tool to determine distance. Students may adjust locations to better fit their budget after their calculations.

Students are also expected to tell us about their trip using a travel journal. This is placed inside their maps. Notice the editing tool under the text tool on the left side. Students can click on that then on one of their markers, then they can open the “Link” tab to insert information about the location. They can use the text tool to name that location as well by clicking on it and dragging the box to the desired location of the label.

Since this is a cross-curricular project, students are asked to include physical features and climate for each plotted stop on their journey. They give a weather forecast for each stop based on research into average seasonal weather in that place. Students have an easy way of depicting this on their maps thanks to GIS. Students select “Add Layer,” then use the layer category “Climate and Weather” to select appropriate displays. Normally, students will add “Precipitation and Rainfall,” “Climate Zones,” and “Surface Air Temperature” for either winter or summer, depending on their travel dates.

All of these are now visible layers on the map that can be edited for different levels of visibility. When students share these maps with their peers, they can manipulate the transparency level to show each required element.

Students also now have data populated in their legend that can be used in their presentation or for a more advanced project later.

If they would like, students can also change the base map as well by selecting the “Base Maps” tab and choosing the imagery to display.

Students must also locate a historical or important geographic feature of each location to include in their journal. They enter all information in the description box found under the editing/formatting tool and the “Link” tab. Students can fill in everything under Link to reflect information about the pinned location. I ask students to share here their general description of the location’s physical and human features, their weather forecast, and information about places of historical or geographic importance. My favorite part is that students can also add pictures and video to their travel journal. Be sure they remember to click “Save” beside the editing tool so that MapMaker populates their work.

The final piece of the project is for students to present their findings to the class or a small group of their peers while other students conduct mini-inquiries into these locations. The final product is better than a typical slide deck display because it is interactive and provides students an opportunity to engage in analysis using GIS and researched data.

I have also used MapMaker to track historical events. Students plot locations of battles, connections to U.S. history in our state, the building of the transcontinental railroad, and Alexander the Great’s wide-ranging conquests. Then, we add layers while studying GIS principles. Students add physical and cultural features to better understand the event or person they are studying.

I have also brought this down to the community level and had students map the development of our community from past to present. They trace historical events and create a roadmap for potential future development based on land use. We can also go back and reuse the data already collected on these maps to look at a location’s climate and weather as we study a different event that happened there.

The great news is that MapMaker was recently updated and features some incredible new tools students can use for exploration. Using MapMaker in the classroom is an easy lift to allow students to glimpse the tools of a geographer and begin to use them on their own. Teachers do not have to be fluent in mapmaking or technology to use MapMaker. In addition, using MapMaker provides an opportunity to talk about the role of cartographers and potential careers involving these skills.

Explore the MapMaker Launch Guide here, and visit National Geographic’s Resource Library for more resources to help you get the most out of the tool.

When they are creating or editing online maps, students are practicing real-world skills they will use in the future. They do not need to know every date in my history book, but they do need the skills that they can gain by combining history and geography. I feel like I make a difference when I do these activities and bring in project-based learning to my classroom. Composed of colors, lines, and labels, a map is one of the most effective mediums for capturing spatial relationships. Studied closely, they can be used to interpret the past, define the present, foretell the future, and take your students around the world.


National Geographic Education is celebrating Geography Awareness Week all week long on the Education Blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook. Check in regularly to hear from educators about their innovative and inspiring approaches to teaching geography, and learn how National Geographic tools and resources can help you empower your students to think geographically.

Tama Nunnelley is a social studies instructor from Alabama. She is a National Geographic Certified Educator and trainer, was a 2018 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, and was recognized in 2015 by the National Council for Geographic Education as a distinguished teacher. She serves as chair of the Geography Community of the National Council for the Social Studies and is an adjunct in geography at the University of North Alabama. She is always eager to talk to fellow educators and help them brainstorm new ideas. She can be reached at tlnunnelley@una.edu.

Featured image by Rebecca Hale

2 thoughts on ““A Field Trip Anywhere”: Try This MapMaker Project With Your Students

  1. Tama,
    I found this usage of National Geographic’s MapMaker to be quite intriguing and something that I could see myself using in my future classroom. I think it’s important to help students have a spatial awareness of historical events, and tracking different movements of people would provide great context to the students. I also think that offering them some autonomy to map out their own journey would be a great way to get student engagement while working on a geography unit. This would help them understand the specific routes necessary to take, the terrain of the region, and other what other towns/cities they may have to pass through along the way. I was curious though, what grades have you seen activities with MapMaker be particularly fruitful for student learning?

  2. Hi Tama –
    I am a preservice teacher and really enjoyed reading about the projects you have given students using MapMaker. I’m curious what topics they have chosen and how they were able to use maps to support their work. I’m also curious about how long it takes students to become proficient with MapMaker. I am thinking of doing a sample project for my future world history students on the Silk Road. Does MapMaker have base maps showing the historic Sil Road routes that I could superimpose on contemporary borders? Is there a way to explore the old routes and compare with current rail and road networks? Thanks much for introducing such an interesting resource!
    Mark

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