Understanding and Improving How People Use Maps

PI's: Kim A. Kastens, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University
Lynn S. Liben, The Pennsylvania State University, Department of Psychology (research on map skills)
Robert McClintock, Teachers College, Columbia University (development of Where are We?)

Project Overview

In collaboration with colleagues at Teachers College, Lamont scientists developed the Where Are We? software and associated curriculum materials to help elementary school children learn to "translate" between the visually-perceived world that they sense around them, and the schematic representation of that terrain on a map. This skill, which is essential to a career in field sciences or to effective functioning in today's mobile society, is rarely taught in schools. Where Are We? sets up situations in which students must repeatedly determine correspondences between a map location and the videoed view from that location, as they seek to move to a chosen destination, add new information to the map, or figure out where they are when dropped at an unknown location.

Translating between reality and a map. Exploring the Park scene from Where Are We? software.

To inform the further development of Where Are We? and to contribute to basic knowledge of human’s use of spatial representations, Lamont and Penn State scientists are documenting and analyzing the nature of misconceptions in map use. We have developed field-based map skills assessments in which participants place colored stickers on a map to indicate where they think a similarly-colored flag is located in the represented space, and place colored markers on the ground to indicate their notion of the location represented by a similarly-colored sticker on the map.

Two participants run past dark blue flag.Participant intently places sticker on map.Orange flag on corner of Lamont Hall.

Map of students' sticker placements for the orange flag.Our analysis identifies the following types of misconceptions:

The figure at right displays 4th graders' sticker placements for the orange flag in the Flag Sticker Task. Stickers inside the red circle were placed by students who apparently failed to understand the representational correspondence between the map and the real world, placing their orange sticker on a tree or lawn symbol rather than a building symbol. The blue circle contains stickers from students who showed their understanding of rep- resentational correspondance by placing their orange sticker on a building symbol, but they lacked the understanding of configurational correspondance that would have allowed them to disambiguate among the various buildings on the map.

Maps and Photos of Field Area

Posters and Talks



Papers, Reports, and Instructional Materials



Instructional Materials

NSF logo This work was funded by an Oracle Media Objects Challenge grant and the following grants from the National Science Foundation: ESI-96-17852 (Kastens & McClintock), ESI-01-01806 (Kastens), ESI-01-01758 (Liben), and GEO-01-22001 (Kastens). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.