Interactive Maps in the Science Classroom

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For the last several years I’ve been showing Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” whenever I teach climate science to my students. I find it is interesting for them to think about where our “stuff” comes from and what happens to it. This unit usually takes place for us close to the holiday season, when we run an interdisciplinary project entitled Charity Fair. This is an incredibly busy time of year at our school since Charity Fair requires that students complete different components of this project in each of their content areas. However, Science, the class I teach, does not always fit well with the scope of the project, which mainly covers issues addressed in the social studies classroom.

Two years ago, as I was wrapping up the climate science unit and heading into Charity Fair, I thought about having students figure out the transportation carbon footprint for the products they were creating for Charity Fair. For the first time it fit relatively nicely and I hoped that this would become our science Charity Fair staple so I would not have to continue to figure it out from scratch each year.

We ran the project that year, and while the science component was better than the previous year, we had a lot of hiccups as the students tried to gather their data to calculate the carbon footprint of their products. This component created so much frustration that I scrapped it last year and we created instructables for their products instead.

Then I took the Making Interactive Maps course on KQED Teach. As I was learning about creating interactive maps, I was not really thinking about their use in science. I just thought it was cool to learn about, and perhaps share with my social studies and ELA counterparts so they could then use maps to  track immigration or characters in a story. The final step of the course was to create a lesson plan. As I thought about creating a lesson plan on something completely unrelated to my content area, I remembered those carbon footprint calculations that we had done two years ago. I decided that I could use all those in and outs of Google Maps that I had learned, teach them to the students, and have them develop “carbon footprint maps,” which would eliminate the biggest hurdle we had facedfiguring out the mileage for each component. So I wrote and posted the Journey of Stuff lesson plan for KQED Teach, tweaking it to make it a little more generic than what I would eventually use for Charity Fair.

Creating their own Google Maps

The students at AdVENTURE spend four years in cohorts, and as I mentioned before, we had tried a different version of the carbon footprint assignment, so rather than tell my current 7th and 8th graders that we were going to implement it again and have them become disengaged as they remembered the frustration from our first attempt, I decided to introduce the idea by sharing with them the
map I created for KQED Teach. I gave them a couple of minutes to explore the map, inviting them to click on the location pins, hoping that someone would click on the map description. My patience was rewarded when a student called me over and stated the obvious, “Didn’t we do something like this for Charity Fair two years ago?” As her comment spread through the classroom, I knew I had at least some of them.


I explained that yes, we would be doing something similar, but this time we would be creating interactive Google maps, which of course was much more interesting. The inevitable statement “This looks complicated...” was easily addressed as I showed them the supporting materials I had created for them, including a presentation with detailed instructions that I posted for them on Edmodo.

I answered some clarifying questions and sent students home with the task of figuring out the brand and place of manufacture of their “raw materials.” This was actually the hardest part of the assignment this time around, and we had to make some concessionsIf they could not find the specific place of manufacture, we settled for the company’s headquarters. If they could not find the company’s headquarters because they were reusing materials, they could substitute it with  the global sourcing companies included in their handout. This part of the assignment had the added benefit of placing the students in the role of environmental detectives as they recognized that most manufactured goods come to the U.S. from far away and are simply repackaged here.

Once they had their sourcing data, it was really a matter of inputting the data to Google Maps, and using it to find the mileage of their journey. As with all Google products, Google Maps allows for collaborative editing, so the process went incredibly smoothly.The students were engaged in the conversations I was hoping for when I created the original assignment, mainly: “The transportation of goods is an environmental nightmare.”

I invite you to take a look at some of my students’ work, which includes not only their maps but the all-important connection to Science and Engineering Practices and Cross-Cutting Concepts:

Christmas Jars

Christmas Cards for Creatures

Fortune Cookies

More Google Maps Science Projects

Now that this assignment is done, I am thinking of other ways to include Google Maps in science.

Tracking ocean currents: In the past, I have had students create hand-drawn maps in response to our Ocean Currents project. I am now thinking of having them use Google Maps instead and using the data sheet it creates to provide the story of their journey.

Physics: Several of the assignments in my motion unit ask students to calculate distance and displacement. These can easily be modified to make use of Google Maps. Example

Biomes: Google Maps allows you to insert images and video, so as students create film products for their biomes project (or any type of project), these can be mapped out on Google Maps and shared with the community.

Discovery projects: As a fun collaborative project, students could map out the country/city of discovery of the elements of the periodic table and add the year, discoverer or uses of each element to the data table.

I wonder what other creative uses you have found for Google Maps. I’d love to hear about them!


Editor’s Note:


If you want to learn more about how to make interactive maps in your classroom, take our free, online course Making Interactive Maps on KQED Teach.