Peace Corps World Map Project: Bringing Geography Education to Unexpected Places

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Peace Corps volunteers have plotted tens of thousands of maps with children from Burkina Faso to Fiji as a geographic learning tool. Though our world is now globally connected with communication, information, and economy, basic understanding of maps and geographic knowledge is lacking in most corners of the world. In America, geographic knowledge is abysmal; a National Geographic Poll showed that 47% of American young adults could not place India on a map, and only 40% know where Iraq is. If Americans, who nearly all have world maps in their classrooms, cable news access, and constant connection to Internet do not have basic map knowledge, what chance do people in developing countries have? To bring basic geography education to schools and communities in the most hidden corners of the earth, a Dominican Republic Peace Corp Volunteer designed the World Map Project in 1988.

Maps and Peace Corps

The U.S. Peace Corps, founded by John F. Kennedy in 1961 to bring peace and friendship around the globe, has sent more than 200,000 volunteers to 139 countries to support development work where help is needed most and share culture. Maps do both – help with development work and share culture. How does a volunteer enter a small rural community where the average citizen has a fourth grade education and explain how a tree planting technique from another continent might revolutionize farming outputs if those citizens can’t even place their own country in the context of a global map and interconnected world? Though geographic learning is not a specific Peace Corps goal, working with children to encourage global thinking early on is an effective strategy to build sustainable communities.

How the World Map Works

Any child can work on this project, regardless of her art or cartography skills. The entire world has been segmented into a scaled, grid-based guide, free for download, in both English and Spanish. The first step is to measure out a graphic grid on a large wall or floor surface and label it in A-Z and numeric quadrants, to locate specific spaces like an atlas. The grid is latitude and longitude to scale. Then, the volunteer, teacher, or project leader puts the class to work in teams to transplant the country lines by quadrant using the Peace Corps guidebook pages. If they can get their hands on a projector, they can skip the gridding and project the map to trace the lines. Children then paint and label the world.

The Power of Maps in Learning

The educational uses for the map are countless and can be used by the entire school or community, but just drawing and painting a global map gives a fantastic sense of connectedness and accomplishment to students who may have never thought about where they really are. Studies show that teachers themselves in the United States have limited understanding of spatial relationships[i] – they know that the Nile River is in Egypt, but they do not know where Egypt is, for example. If teachers from one of the most educated countries in the world have this problem, we can assume that those from the developing world have the same or less awareness. Maps are the easiest way to erase this paradigm and force visual spatial learning in the classroom, even when teachers do not fully understand. Children from as early as 3 years old understand maps, and by 10 they can critically analyze them, according to National Geographic.[ii] The evidence is clear that increased spatial relation learning in childhood education improves STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) outcomes later on,[iii] among other concepts.

Using the World Map Grid System to Make Other Scaled Maps

Any map can be made using this grid system for latitude and longitudinal coordinates. Even if the project leader does have access to a projector, using the grid system is useful because it teaches the concept of scale so important to cartography and geo-spatial analysis. The map pictured here was a project of this author as a Peace Corps volunteer in a rural Paraguayan school, working with fifth and sixth graders who were not advanced enough to make a full World Map. The design was adapted to a political map upon request from teachers, but it was created by a group of environmental education volunteers as an ecological map of different biomes in Paraguay, showing mountain ranges, forests, swamps, rivers, and desert ecosystems as well as the country’s natural reserves. Using a grid system to correlate where children are in scale to where their closest rivers and forests helps relate ideas of the water cycle/watershed analysis and environmental interconnectedness.

Map that Devon Reeser helped school-aged children in Paraguay create.
Map that Devon Reeser helped school-aged children in Paraguay create. Photo: Devon Reeser.

The World Map Project and its spin off maps are helping children all over the world, in some of the most tucked away corners, spatially relate to where they are and place themselves on the globe. Anyone, anywhere can be a cartographer and connect to his or her global neighbors.

References 


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[i] Segall, Avner and Robert J. Helfenbein. 2008. Research on K-12 Geography Education. In Handbook of Research in Social Studies Education, eds. Linda S. Levstik and Cynthia A. Tyson. Taylor and Francis. Full chapter available on: http://books.google.com.py/books?hl=en&lr=&id=pLrSCMPZU54C&oi=fnd&pg=PA259&dq=geography+education+globally&ots=nMfHyOvBUM&sig=2DspRQBKJbSGWE6YGDtc63KVEJE&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=geography%20education%20globally&f=false.

[ii] Mohan, Audrey and Lindsey Mohan. 2014. Spatial Thinking About Maps: Development of Concepts and Skills Across the Early Years. National Geographic Education Foundation. http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/media/spatial-thinking-about-maps/?ar_a=1.

[iii] Sieck, Winston. 13 Oct. 2013. Building Spatial Thinking Improves Stem Success. Global Cognition. http://www.globalcognition.org/head-smart/building-spatial-thinking-improves-stem-success/.


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