26 June 2016

How to Make Geography Meaningful and Interesting with Google My Maps

Google My Maps

Geography Education

Geography is one of the key components of social studies education, yet it is an often overlooked aspect of many a teacher's curriculum. I myself am guilty of cramming the Five Themes of Geography into a very hectic one or two class periods. For too long, geography has been an afterthought of the social studies, but who can really blame us? How could learning about human-environment interaction compare with the suspense of the Revolutionary War? How could absolute location hold a match to Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon? How could place-physical...well, you get the point. 

In truth, geography may just might be the most interesting aspect of social studies. One might even make the argument that geography has had a greater impact on human history than all the political, social and economic systems combined. At the very least, geography shapes these human systems. I try to spend at least a few days a unit studying the impact of the geography on the place/civilization/event that we are studying. I have created mental maps with my class in the past but found them to be much too tedious and time consuming. Then, the lightbulb went off over my head. We live in an age of GPS, with nearly every single inch of the world explored and mapped by satellites in the sky. There had to be a way to leverage all this technology at my fingertips into a worthwhile geography education. I began experimenting with Google Maps and saw the potential. Then I came across Google My Maps at the 2015 GAFE Summit in Baltimore, where I observed tech wiz James Sanders challenge our group to create a zombie apocalypse presentation. The presentation required us to upload examples of us using GAFE tools in creative ways. I was already familiar with most of the tools except for Google My Maps. 

The Breakthrough!

I had finally found it! My new way to teach geography. I was extremely excited to play around with this new toy. It was even more amazing than it sounded. Basically, Google My Maps, for the uninitiated, is similar to Google Maps, except much more customizable. You start off by inserting pins on various locations on the map (much like the red symbol below; I'm sure you've seen it before)

Google Map Pin

What is Google My Maps?

These pins can be changed to any number of other icons, but we'll get to that later. So what else can you do with Google My Maps? Well for starters, once you choose a location for your pin, you can attach photos, text, videos and links to that icon. Whenever someone clicks on that icon, they'll be able to see what you have added. Students aren't limited to simply adding icons to the map however. They can also draw lines (to represent rivers perhaps). Just like with the icons, you can choose what color the lines are. You can also adjust the line width and can even  draw a line around an entire area to indicate a location. You can use the icons, lines and shapes to showcase the Five Themes of Geography. Google even lets you customize your icons to represent the location with more detail. As you can see in the map below, the icons all represent a different part of Chinese geography.

Below is a map that a group from my World Studies 6 class created of China. They were each given the task of researching the climate, physical geography, human geography, natural resource and other important sites in a given region of China. The map came out spectacular. You can scroll in and out on the map, click on icons to see what they represent, see the images chosen for each icon and more. Some of the lines represent rivers and the red line represents the Great Wall of China. The larger shapes of the map are areas such as the Gobi Desert or the Himalaya Mountain Range.

Try clicking on some of the icons below to see what pops up.

Using Google My Maps gives students the opportunity to layer their own creation over a pre-existing map of the world. There are tons of other cool features of this product. To see a more in-depth tutorial, see the video below. I think the best part about this technology is that it goes above and beyond simple knowledge retention and requires the students to collaborate and create, which are higher level learning activities. The possibilities are endless. Google even lets you layer maps so you can show change across time. I can't wait to see how my students will surprise me the next time we use Google My Maps!

Google My Maps Demo

Sample Google My Map of NFL Stadiums

I created the map above and included the stadiums of all NFL teams. I inserted a picture and video into each icon. I also tried to match the icon colors with the team's color. It was a fun little project!!

Bonus Tip: Google's Smarty Pins

Think your a geography wiz? Want to test your trivia knowledge? Smarty Pins was created by Google to test your geography and trivia skills. The gist of the game is that they give you a geography related trivia question (ie. in which city were the 1992 Summer Olympics held?). You click and drag your pin to the location that you think is right (Barcelona btw). Here's the catch. You start off with 1000 miles in the bank. Every time you are off (say you place a pin in Washington D.C. instead of Baltimore and are off by 35 miles) you lose that many miles from your bank. Once your bank hits 0, you're done. If you can answer in 15 seconds or less, you win back some miles. See how many questions you can get before you run out of miles. This is a great warm up activity for students to practice their geography skills and it's darn fun too!


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