Maps (3 of 3)

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Students will be able to: 1) articulate the role of geospatial technology in map creation and use; 2) identify applications for the "new cartography" in the real world; and 3) develop a prototype design of a student-generated community map about environmental justice that incorporates ideas from the geospatial revolution.

Big Idea

Mapmaking is an ancient tool that is making a comeback as a powerful data visualization tool. How might we apply new cartographic techniques from geographic information systems (GIS) to represent our community through a specific data lens?

FRAME: Maps and environmental justice

How are maps tools of environmental justice? Mapping skills are an excellent way to marry data visualization, claims, and conceptual understanding in an environmental science course. Importantly, mapping is skill that is not intimidating to most students.  Because they have many years of experience with mapping, it feels "natural." Even the complicated geospatial information systems (GIS) framework students will encounter in this lesson sequence is familiar; it is a core feature of most smartphone apps and websites.

In this three lesson sequence, students learn about the following:

  1. Maps can be thought of as visual arguments. In the first lesson, students examine different types of maps and identify arguments that these maps make. From this experience, students begin to define maps as visual arguments.
  2. Maps that use evidence of environmental injustice from local neighborhoods can be tools that use STEM skills and concepts to address social justice issues. In this second lesson, students begin to consider the idea that the claim a map makes can be an advocacy tool.  
  3. Maps of the local community are essential resources for understanding the environmental issues that students face everyday. In the third lesson, students continue to work with the idea that maps make claims that might address social justice issues within a community. With the help of a GIS film and complex text, students develop design ideas for creating dynamic maps of the Sunset Park that might be tools environmental justice.

These lessons are hands-on and theoretical.  Students will move between the familiar and the esoteric.  Teachers will need to exercise patience and allow students to struggle with new ideas. There is an element of "play with purpose" that is an important feature of the classroom culture in these lessons.  The ultimate goal is for students to develop neighborhood maps that are visual arguments to be used to increase environmental justice in the neighborhood.  For students to reach this point, they cannot follow a recipe.  They will have to try and fail a number of times before they are able to create a map that works.

By the end of "Maps", successful students will have met the following objectives:

  1. describe how a map can be claim that uses visualized data as evidence
  2. write claims using the evidence presented in different types of maps
  3. apply understanding of different types of visualized data in maps to the design of a neighborhood map that presents a claim through visual evidence
  4. articulate a purpose for designing maps
  5. identify three uses for maps in a science classroom
  6. describe the use of different kinds of maps in social justice initiatives
  7. articulate the role of geospatial technology in map creation and use
  8. identify applications for the "new cartography" in the real world
  9. develop a prototype design of a student-generated community map about environmental justice that incorporates ideas from the geospatial revolution.


  • The attached PROTOTYPE EXTENSION ACTIVITY GUIDE contains a number of self-paces activities that might be modified for a classroom of diverse learners. The current lesson presents a suggest sequence of activities; however, many of the texts, films, and activities in this guide might be better suited to different students populations.
  • Geospatial revolution MOOC by Penn State.  This is the website for a Coursera offering from Penn State that is also described in the attached research article.  This could be a good resources for educators wanting to learn more about how geospatial education by studying a model program.

REVIEW + FRAME: Geospatial Revolution

20 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students share out takeaways from the previous lesson and learn about how scientists apply geospatial technology to map design.  The teacher facilitates classroom discussions and collects data related to students’ interests and misconceptions. By the end of this section, students should be able to describe GIS technology as well as how this technology can be used to benefit or harm human populations.

What will students do?

First, each student will voice one takeaway from the previous lesson.  We will use a "one thing I learned yesterday is..." sentence starter.  Then all students will watch an episode of The Geospatial Revolution, a program developed by Penn State.  The website for this video series has an incredible collection of resources for educators. While watching this presentation, students will engage with two guiding questions:

  • What is the role of technology in creating maps?
  • How are maps used to help or hurt humans?

To develop responses, students will capture information using an "I see, I think" protocol.  This means that students will describe what they see and then attempt to explain the significance of an observation.  For example, a student might see a woman using a cell phone to find a restaurant and they might think that this means that humans will get lost quickly with a cell service.  Once students have watched this clip they will have a few minutes to finish responses and discuss with table groups; then they will discuss as a class.

Here is the video:

What will the teacher do?

The teacher will circulate during viewing to support students' observations.  This is an activity that will work better with affirmations ("great response!") and probing questions ("I noticed you wrote 'x'; what do you think about 'y'?").  The teacher will also facilitate a discussion of responses to the guiding questions and record main ideas on the board.  

ELABORATE: New Cartographers II

25 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students explore applications of the geospatial evolution through examinations of model maps highlighted in an article from NextCity magazine.  The teacher assesses students' understanding of the role of geospatial technology in solving a wide range of social problems and also supports students struggling to extract meaning from this text. By the end of this activity, students should be able to describe specific examples of humans using GIS maps to solve immediate and longer term problems.

What will students do?

Students will further explore the applications of the geospatial revolution to map create throughout "The New Cartographers", an article from the the urban-focused NextCity magazine.  Students will learn about how GIS maps are reshaping humans' capacity to understand and improve urban space; they will also understand how maps can be advocacy tools that can help to solve short-term and long-term social problems, such as disaster relief or transportation issues. Students will make meaning of this article by choosing two of five model maps--these maps focus on Rio, New York, Kathmandu, Manila, and Chicago--and answering the following guiding questions:

  • What is the purpose of the map?
  • What technology did the map incorporate?
  • How might we use this map as a model for creating a map addressing environmental justice issues in Sunset Park.

Finally, students will join one of five groups corresponding to the cities highlighted in the article to norm understanding of that map.  Each group will then share out the team's responses to the guiding questions.

What will the teacher do?

The teacher will primarily help to differentiate this task to diverse learners.  Some students may need vocabulary support; some students will struggle with the complexity of the writing; some will need to focus solely on the map models; and some will need models of how to answer each question. Teachers will also facilitate small group conversation and whole group discussion. 

EVALUATE: What kind of map of Sunset Park might I make?

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students develop ideas for applying their new understandings of geospatial mapping technologies to the Sunset Park environment.  The teacher supports students in identifying potential environmental problems and choosing appropriate geospatial mapping strategies to address those problems. By the end of this section students should be able to explain a map that they would want to make of Sunset Park that highlights an environmental problem. Students should also be able to identify the technology that they would need to collect data.

UNIT CONNECTION: Students will return to this activity again in a future MAP LAB.

What will students do?  

Students will choose one of the following questions to answer:

  1. What is an environmental problem in Sunset Park that we should map?
  2. What kind of technology could we use to create maps that will raise awareness about environmental issues in Sunset Park?
  3. What resources might we use to help use make maps of Sunset Park that highlight environmental problems? 

They will have SEVEN minutes to develop an answer.  We will spend the last few minutes of class sharing our this answer so that all student can give and receive information that we will use in the next lesson.

What will the teacher do?

The teacher will support students in choosing an appropriate question and developing answers.  The teacher will also facilitate the whole group share at the close of class. Popular ideas for this activity included:

  • areas with the most trash
  • areas with the most car exhaust
  • areas with the dirtiest water

EXTEND: Ethics and maps

Students will apply their understanding of gis, maps, and maps as a tool with great potential social impact, to address an ethical question: Should we use “big data” to create gis maps that track, influence, and regulate human behavior?  Choose one of the short films and develop an argumentative essay:

DIFFERENTIATION NOTE: This is an extension activity that would be best for classes with engaged students that want to explore the ethical complexities of GIS.