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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Size Matters in Spatial and Critical Thinking

There's a new geography education app out for iOS, writes Kelly Johnston from the University of Virginia Scholars Lab:
I recently joined with map-minded folks to build GeoTron 5000 to put the power of comparative geography and spatial literacy in hand. Choose two places and the GeoTron 5000 robot spins up two maps to show exactly how those places compare.
It's free (with more data available via in-app purchase) and the public domain data (Natural Earth) was crunched with open source software (QGIS). It sounds interesting, but more interesting are the key spatial ideas the app (and other programs like it) teach:
Travel is one of the best tests of our spatial literacy. When away from familiar territory we can use the size of places we know well to better understand places we’ve never visited. Travel guide books assume a high degree of spatial literacy when offering comparisons like “Germany is about half the size of Texas”. But spatial thinking is best served when we choose familiar frames of reference.
I fully agree. Johnston goes on:
Scaled maps for geographic comparison using How Big Really or GeoTron 5000 inform spatial reasoning by answering the key question: compared to what? 
Size matters.
These tools do indeed answer the "compared to what" question. That's a really important question in critical thinking. I recently read that "more than 96,000" students took the AP Human Geography exam in 2012. That's a big number - but how may took it the year before? And how many students took the AP American History exam? That context is incredibly valuable for understanding the data and the underlying argument (if there is one).

Johnston's last comment is a key stepping stone for further spatial thinking. Size most certainly matters when comparing size. But, does it matter when comparing other things about countries? Population size? Population health? GDP? Influence? Does size have a positive or negative correlation with these and other factors? Or to quote one of my favorite geography professors, the late Paul Simkins, "Germany is half the size of Texas. So what?"

- Scholars Lab via @dianamaps