Adam J. Schwartz is My
Wonderful World’s public engagement coordinator for New York City. He teaches Geographic
Information Systems and Global History at the Academy of Urban Planning in Brooklyn, New York, and is an historical tour guide for the Center for the Urban Environment.
We live in an age of maps.
According to author and cartographer Dennis Wood, over 99.9% of all maps ever
created were created during the last 100 years. They surround us in our daily
activities: in newspapers, on weather reports, and throughout our day. With
tools like Google
Maps and the National Geographic Map Machine they
are available at the merest click. We are all map consumers, including our
Having a map at your
fingertips is an everyday luxury, but the fact is that someone has got to make
all those maps. That someone could be your students, or even you! Making your
own maps is a great option for teachers who want to create their own materials.
And for students it can be a hook for getting involved in geography and
geographic careers. Many of our students are already interested in technology. So
by showing them how they can apply that to making a map, you open up a whole
new potential career, in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
So what’s GIS? GIS technology
is the nuts and bolts behind almost every map we use, and is vital for many of
the services we use everyday, both public (power and water systems) and private
.GIS is, at its simplest level, software that combines location and information
in a simple visual format. And during the last few years, it’s
become easier to access than ever before.
More importantly, Geospatial
Technology, of which GIS is a subset, is one of the fastest growing
sectors of the technology industry. If a student chooses GIS, the chances
are great that there will be a job waiting for them after college, or even
A tool for teachers and
Vocational education is not
what brings most teachers to GIS. And it doesn’t take any special training for
you to get started using it in your classroom. I’m certainly no mastermind at GIS, I’m just a
teacher who loves maps, and making them! That’s what led me to take a short
teacher training course with Carol Gersmehl of New York’s Regents Center for Geographic Learning. Beyond
that, most of what I’ve learned is from the same tutorials my students use. At
the Academy of Urban Planning, I’m lucky to co-teach
with an experienced geographer, Josh Lapidus, but most of what I have learned
is on the job.
The most important lesson
I’ve taken out of making maps is that while it may be the “long way round”–as
compared to using published maps–you can get much more out of the journey.
As a teacher, GIS mapping can
be the simplest way to get just the right map. Yes, you can Google for hours
for just the right map for that special activity. Or, with a little practice,
you can make it yourself. And whether
you give your lessons with an overhead, a projector, or a SMARTboard, the
multiple layers of a GIS map enable you to better explain any spatial
For our students, we all want
to make our activities more engaging. And most educators would agree that
students remember more of what they do
than what they read, see, or hear. And they are more interested, too.
Consequently, a student
making his or her own map can build new levels of understanding as they see how
borders change, and how topography, climate, and demographics interact to
explain historic or scientific processes. It’s a constructivist approach to
geography, with the students doing the constructing.
And best of all, when they
are finished with a GIS map, a student has the pride of printing it! These polished
artifacts not only celebrate what’s been learned, they look great on a wall, or
even better, in a portfolio. This year at my school, the Academy of Urban Planning, many of our students are submitting portfolios for colleges focusing on arts,
architecture, and design. And in each of those portfolios is a map they made
We don’t expect many of our
students to come out of our program as cartographers, but they all come out
with a greater mastery of real world computer skills, better literacy skills
(from all those tutorials!), and a more insightful understanding of the world
around them. I am lucky enough to teach a yearlong dedicated GIS class, but
everything we do is taught in connection with Science (Urban Ecology), AP Human
Geography, and US History. Along the way, our students also develop skills in
technology and geography.
Here’s how it works for us: After
starting with Google Maps and Google Earth, my students worked up to AEJEE, a
very basic GIS program (more on that below). They are currently following AEJEE
tutorials, in preparation for building their own mapping projects. The
published tutorials have dealt with settlement patterns in US history and the US Census. We
have also written our own tutorials on the 2008 election.
As for projects, we start
those in the spring. In past years, we have focused on environmental justice
and local history. This spring, we will be combining both themes by making maps
for a local environmental group that is working to clean up NYC’s dirtiest body
of water, Newtown Creek.
Of course, not everyone can dedicate the
time we do to mapping with GIS technology. But there’s a new place for
it in your classroom. It’s just a matter of getting started!