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Monday, June 25, 2012

NPR Mapping Experts Miss Teachable STEM Moment

Last week the NPR show OnPoint (based out of WBUR here in Boston) discussed the new world of maps. It was prompted by the latest plans from Google and Apple but touched on privacy, how we are less spatially literate and several other important ideas.

The guests were:

Still, as is so common in these discussions for the general public, this show missed what I consider an important educational opportunity.

About halfway through the one hour program a woman called in from Lexington, KY. I'll paraphrase her comment:
She said she'd given up on her GPS since it couldn't do the job of getting her where she needed to go. She's a horse trainer and travels to rural areas. She detailed how the device got her to the correct road, but then said the destination was just up the road 100 yards on the left. But in fact it was much farther down the road on the left.
Now, we geospatial folks can readily explain that. We know the error comes from how geocoded address ranges attached to road networks are used to "guesstimate" the actual location of a specific address.

Neither the writer from Wired (who may not have known this) nor the two GIS savvy professionals (who surely did) explained the math/science behind how geocoding is still sometimes done. Instead, we learned that addresses are better in more populated areas and that Google and other map providers welcome feedback to correct such errors. Those comments are indeed true, but why not explain a bit about how these magic black boxes work and how they can (and do and will!) make such errors? Why not engage in a discussion of how fairly basic STEM ideas are behind GPS and GIS? And, most important to me, why not explain something that even young people can understand since the math is pretty basic! Why not let them own this cool piece of knowledge? Getting one's head around such ideas is so important in building STEM confidence and STEM interest - not just for kids but for adults, too!

To be fair, there may be a good reason the discussants did not go "there, " of which I may not be aware. And, I know it's easier to critique a recording than it is to respond thoughtfully in real time. Still...

One final thought. The day this program ran my housemate came downstairs after listening to it and asked: "So what did you think of the mapping thing on Tom Ashbrook [he's the host]?" I explained I specifically hadn't listened to it live since these publicly focuses mapping discussions always get me frustrated. I listened to the podcast a day later and indeed became frustrated right on queue.