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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Bad Map as Teachable Moment

This week I found a map that's perfect for exploring cartography challenges in online maps. And, it's even an education related map! This map appeared in an article in Wales Online; it highlights a new system for grading secondary schools in Wales. The scheme is referred to as banding.
Band One schools are considered best-performing, with good progress made across all measures.
At the opposite end of the scale, Band Five schools are considered “weak relative to others” and in need of more support.
The map uses different colored symbols for each band. In the article, below the map, is the legend. (It's not a simple thing to put a legend in a map built with Google Fusion Tables, it seems.) The legend reads:
Click points for more info. Key: Band 1 = pink, Band 2 = blue, Band 3 = green, band 4 = yellow, band 5 = red
This legend turns me into a human lookup table! I first look at the map to find a school of interest, then find its symbol color, say blue. Then, I refer to the legend and learn that's band 2. Then I refer to the text I quoted above to learn that band 2 mean "one notch down from the top performing schools." That's great news for the school, but far too much work for me as the map reader!

This map and article are jumping off points for all kinds of great questions for students:
  • Is the map useful? How? 
  • How would you make the symbols/legend more helpful or effective?
  • Would a different type of map or different symbology have been helpful?
  • Are there any spatial patterns in the bands? Can you describe them? Explain them?
After this discussion I'd have students download the data and use different Web tools (not Google Maps/Fusion Tables) to make their own maps with a focus on an effective legend.

A bad map is a great starting point for a hands-on learning experience!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Geocube: A Best Website for Teaching and Learning?

Geocube was cited as a Best Website for Teaching and Learning site by the American Association of School Librarians. It was in the Curriculum Sharing category. I'd not heard of it before, so I checked it out. Here's the About information from the site:
Geocube…… re-inventing the way to explore Geography
The world of Geography at your fingertips and just a mouse click away!
Geocube is an attractive online resource about Geography. Geocube is based on the principle of the Rubik Cube with six faces and 54 topics. It is a virtual and easily accessible website which is available online for free. Move the Geocube around with your mouse and explore the faces and topics.Geocube provides an accessible way to read, see and watch what Geography is and geographers do. This is a European initiative developed by HERODOT, the European Network for Geography in Higher Education and is available to anyone who is interested in Geography.
While visually interesting and fun to play with, the site is more flash than substance. A virtual Rubik Cube floats in the center of the site and visitors navigate to different topics by spinning it. Each face has a theme (section in Geocube lingo): Earth from All Angles, Useful Geographies, The Fascinating Earth, Living Together, etc. Each face expands to a nine segment tic-tac-toe board of nine topics (subsection in Geocube lingo).

Living Together, for example, includes subsections on economic development, pollution, language, mobility, health, migration, ethnicity and religion, literacy and poverty. The health section includes a short, dull essay on health and epidemiology. There are also some images in a gallery (insect, ambulance, a picture of the sun viewed through open hands) with no captions or details. I have no idea why they are here, nor do I find suggestions on how instructors or students might use them. There are videos, too. None that I saw had any sound, nor captions or titles. Curious.

The "How to Use" video explains how to navigate the cube, but does not suggest a meaningful path through the content for students or guidance for instructors.

The explanation for this is not on the site, but can be found in a slide deck from 2009 explaining the goal of this project as a tool to promote geography, not share curricula or educate. I think the site does promote geography well, but I'm not sure how an educator would use it in course/curricula development.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Spatially Unaware (and Dangerous!)

Last night I went to indoor track practice. The coach is really good about asking if we have new people because he wants to be sure they understand "track etiquette." These are the rules on where to be on the track so every can do their work and be safe. There are just a few pretty straightforward rules.

1) When you run your "hard/timed" parts of the workout, you run in the first lane, the inside-most lane. And, you run single file. We typically runs in packs that are about the same pace, so there might be a group of five folks in a line.

2) When you want to pass, you look behind you to be sure no one is coming. Then you move out to lane two, the lane outside of lane one, pass, then move right back into lane one. You do not pass on the inside of lane one.

We had about 60 people on the track from our club and maybe another 15 from a second club, so the tiny (200 meter) indoor track at Tufts University was pretty full. It's fun running with that many people since you get to say "hi" and "good job" to your fellow runners and hear it back from them (when they are not out of breath).

My group was only two last night - me and Aaron. As we worked through our several mile repeats (run a mile, take a short break, run another mile...) we found ourselves behind the "Bobsy Twins." The two very pretty girls had pony tails and ran together, side by side, one in lane one and one in lane two. They chatted continuously during the miles. Aaron and I chat, but not continuously, and not much at all by the last few laps of each mile. The Bobsy Twins were a bit faster than us, so we didn't catch up to them, but the faster runners in the club did.

A big pack of runners, mostly men, but with a few ladies passed me and Aaron.  I called ahead "Train coming!" suggesting it was time to get out of the way or be run down. I then said, "Tuck in," a term we use on the track and one I've heard cycling as well. The idea is to get in a single line so runners (or cars) can pass safely. The Bobsy Twins, to my shock, moved out to lanes two and three, where they were nearly run down by the startled leaders of the big group. Some fancy footwork and clever use of hands and arms prevented a pileup.

I wondered if the Bobsy Twins even noticed that everyone else was running single file? I wonder if they noticed no one was running in lane two, except when they passed? I was disappointed and a bit angry, when on the next mile, the Twins returned to running side by side, across two lanes.

These ladies didn't seem to be fully aware of the space, the rules of the space, and more concerning, didn't learn from their near collision. I wonder if these ladies are good drivers. Do they keep right when going slower and pass on the left? Do they watch traffic and how it behaves to learn how to navigate it safely? Do they tease out the rules if for some reason they do not know them already?

I asked the coach to talk to them and be sure they knew the rules. But I fear something more basic is missing for these ladies.  They don't seem to have the awareness and ability to learn to operate in a "new" geography.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Geographers as University Presidents

I read last week about how Bowling Green State University celebrated the inauguration of Mary Ellen Mazey as its 11th president. She comes to the university from her previous position as provost and vice president for academic affairs at Auburn University (press release). And, she's a geographer. Among those speaking at a panel in her honor titled "Geography in the Changing World of Higher Education: Opportunities and Challenges," was Duane Nellis, president of the University of Idaho and a geographer (article in BG paper). If things weren't so chaotic at Penn State, its president Rodney Erickson, also a geographer, might have chimed in. A quick look suggests these geographers have at least one more fellow university president/geographer: Professor Abdulaziz Bin Sagr Al-Ghamdi, a geographer (Michigan State PhD) leads Naif Arab University for Security Sciences in Saudi Arabia.

I didn't know much about university presidents or geographers until I went to college. I learned that it was (in 1982) a big deal that a woman (Hanna Holborn Gray) served as president of my school. She was, if I recall correctly, the only woman leading a major university at that time. Now, well, even Harvard has a woman president! I also learned during my college years, that Saul Cohen, a geographer, was president of Queens College. I suspect I would not have known that had I not gone into geography and had my parents not been friends with Mr. Cohen.

So, here we stand with no fewer than three geographers (one a woman, no less!) running significant state universities in the United States. How does the geographic lobby for education (currently defined by, well .... the Geo-Literacy Coalition might be a contender) take advantage of this situation? How do we leverage these voices, their vision and standing to bring geography to the fore in our nation?

I'm not exactly sure, but I didn't want this happy accident to go unnoticed by those who might be able to take advantage of the situation.