SKILL BUILDER: Making digital maps

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Students will be able to 1) describe the argument presented by a map; 2) develop a map of the Sunset Park community using online mapping tools; and 3) develop a map as argument with visual evidence from a written claim.

Big Idea

Cloud-based digital mapping programs allow us to present seemingly limitless information about a place. How might we utilize digital mapping software tools to present impactful visual claims about our community?

FRAME: Why digital mapping tools

How can we make maps that reflect our interpretations of the world? Students previously finished a lesson sequence that challenged them to understand maps as visualized arguments about the world that might be used as evidence to support community-based environmental justice efforts. They have also developed a deeper understanding of geographic information systems in the prior SKILLBUILDER.

In this SKILLBUILDER, students first examine a compelling GIS produced map that makes an argument about the local neighborhood. Students then learn to create digital maps using online software tools. Finally, students refine these maps so that they become visual arguments about the local community.

As with the previous lesson, this SKILL BUILDER requires all students to have computers and the basic computer skills required for interacting with an online map. Students use either the Google maps engine or OpenStreetMap for this work. Other mapping platforms will work; these tools were chosen because they are widely used and nicely fit into a self-paced tutorial framework.

Many of the ideas in the lesson come from the world of community-based mapping. Many groups do this important work. One in particular that I have used as a resource for this unit is Jane Goodall's Roots and Shoots Organization. This is an organization that promotes youth-lead community action. Community maps are an essential aspects of this work. 


  • For this lesson, the PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE is from Roots and Shoots.
  • Teachers interested in learning more about community mapping should consider enrollment in the Roots and Shoots course.
  • Finally, the attached PROFESSIONAL READING describes the groundtruthing concept which some educators may want to incorporate into this lesson as an extension activity or assignment.


FLIPPED: Making the neighborhood

What is the purpose of this FLIPPED activity?

Student develop a community map based on a Roots and Shoots framework. Here is the prompt that students receive:

Create a map of four square blocks in your neighborhood. Within this area mark at least three points that feature one of the following:

  • human resources
  • animal resources
  • environmental resources

Finally, describe how you improve the area in your map for humans, animals, and the environment.


15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students examine a local map that presents a compelling visual argument in order to identify an argument that the maps makes. By the end of this section, students should be able to describe the argument CrashSTAT makes using visual evidence from the CrashSTAT map. 

What will students do?

First, students examine the CrashSTAT map projected to the whole class.  What do the symbols mean? What are the different layers available? How do move to an address?

Second, once all students understand how the interactive functions, collaborative groups attempt to construct an argument based on the visual information available. What does this visual information mean? Do you see trends or patterns? Why do you think you see trends or patterns? 

Third, groups share out ideas. "We think that CrashSTAT is arguing...because..."

Fourth, the class will read a written explanation of the visual arguments that the CrashSTAT map makes. From the CrashSTAT "about" page:

This is your roadmap in the fight for safer streets. More than 220,000 pedestrians and bicyclists have been injured and over 2,000 have died in the years of crash data displayed on CrashStat. 
In a city where less than half of households own cars, why do we accept this level of traffic violence? With more effective public policy -- better engineering, enforcement and education -- these deaths and injuries can be prevented. We believe that the City of New York should develop a comprehensive plan to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries. To achieve this Vision Zero policy there must be a culture shift -- inside city government and among all New Yorkers -- to stand against continued traffic violence in New York City. The more people that see this site and begin to understand the breadth of traffic violence, the more people will believe it is time to change the way we have engineered our streets and the way we enforce against dangerous driving behaviors.
Advocates, neighborhood groups, healthcare professionals, journalists, planners, politicians and New Yorkers from every walk of life can help make a difference. We hope you'll share this site with others and start demanding answers from the NYPD, the Department of Transportation, your elected representatives, your community board and your precinct community council.  

Finally, the class debriefs. Were our arguments the same as the argument provided by CrashSTAT? What evidence used supports this argument? What evidence used supports a different argument? What made this process easy? What made this process difficult?

What will teachers do?

Students will struggle the most with developing claims from information presented. One effective teacher move is to use the environmental bias framework to ask student if there are more crashes in certain neighborhoods or along certain streets and, if yes, what this imbalance might mean.

EXPLORE: Map tutorial

25 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students develop simple maps using online mapping software. The skills required to build these maps will be required for students to refine their understanding of maps of tools for environmental justice work.  By the end of this section, students should be able to create a digital map that consists of at least three pin drops, three layers, three pictures, and three captions.

What will students do?

Students will follow the directions in the PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE starting on page 4. These are directions for a maps made with Google map software. This activity is self-paced. Students will complete the following tasks:

  • sign in to Google
  • create and title a map
  • experiment with the layers feature
  • add titles
  • identify locations with pin drops ("placemarks")
  • add a description to a location
  • add a picture to a location
  • create a line

Once students have completed their map they share it with the teacher through a Google form and then write a short reflection piece about the mapping process.

RESOURCE NOTE: Google has its own map tutorial here. Some teachers may want to use it in class, but it is not as student friendly as the Roots and Shoots tutorial.

What will teacher do?

Students that struggle with the technology piece should be paired with proficient students. Students that move quickly through this tutorial should revise their map to reflect a theme. The theme for the attached map sample is food.

ELABORATE: Mapping an argument an peer review

15 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students practice mapping skills by attempting to create a visual argument for a partner's claim. By the end of this section, students should be able to select evidence for a map that support a visual argument.

What will students do?

Students are paired for this activity. 

First, one student makes a claim about the neighborhood.   There is only fast food available to eat. 

Next, the other student attempts to develop a digital map that visually argues for or against the partner's claim. (The attached SAMPLE MAP would be an argument against the claim.)

Finally, the two partners debrief.

  • What argument does the student claim the map makes?
  • What evidence does the student use to make this claim?
  • Is this claim strongly supported by the evidence? 
    • If yes, which pieces of evidence are most compelling? 
    • If no, what other arguments could be made from the selected evidence or what other evidence should be added?

Partners switch roles and repeat the process. 

What will teachers do?

Students are gently nudged towards making claims about the environment; however, for this activity, this is not essential. The goal is to practice mapping arguments. Students will have an opportunity to focus on the environment in a future lesson.