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  • Jennifer Smith

How I Engage Students With Complex Maps


Photo by NASA on Unsplash


Do you love maps? Are you always looking for ways to include more live geography in your classroom? As a social studies teacher, I am constantly searching to connect students with tools that will help them explore the world. I use several maps that at first glance seem to be very complex, yet they are fantastic resources for the classroom.


First, as part of my annual curriculum, I teach hurricanes. The skills I teach are latitude and longitude, but I use the tracking of hurricanes as the application piece to learning the skills. Each fall, we track hurricanes along the Atlantic basin. I provide each student with a hurricane chart, and we track the coordinates of hurricanes as they occur.


To keep an eye on the storms, I use the United States’ National Hurricane Center tracking maps. Designed for meteorologists, this site is complex and offers a very detailed amount of data. To keep exploration simple, I use the Marine Forecast Map to show projected paths and wind speeds. If a hurficane is headed toward the Atlantic coast or is particularly powerful, I will use the maps that demonstrate rainfall and impacted areas. This year, hurricane Ida passed through our town, and school was released early due to rainfall. In class, we tracked the storm using the maps, and we even predicted that we would be in its path.


Showing students information that is used in the real-world rather than “kiddie” sites can be a very compelling way to engage them. I have found my fifth grade students enjoy exploring the site on their own to learn more about where the hurricanes are headed. Sometimes they wander into parts of the site they do not understand, and they learn something new.


We live in the mid-Atlantic of the United States. In the winter, we have a wide variety of weather from ice to snow to freezing rain. Because students are always interested in having snow days, I also introduce them to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) site. NOAA keeps track of weather systems across the United States, and they have amazing maps to explore. Again, this site is designed for meteorologists not students. I usually project the maps on my screen so that students can see me maneuvering the site, and I explain the tools.


To predict our snow day possibilities, we use a specific tool on the NOAA site. Under full forecast for your area, you click the Chance of Precipitation map. This will show a map of your particular area, or an area you may be studying, and its daily precipitation and temperatures. To explore the precipitation weekly, you can click the Weekly tab on the top left. This will provide you with a scrollable timetable of weather change.


When we are slated for a potential snowstorm on the East Coast, I pull this map up. Students love to see me scroll through the times and watch the snow or ice move toward our area. The colorful key on the map is a fantastic way to demonstrate use of a key. Through color, it details when the snow will be heavy or light. Just last week my students screamed in delight in my class, and I can assure you it was only due to the dark blue representing heavy snow on the map.

I also teach geography of the earth, and I introduce students to the ring of fire. For this unit, I use the United States Geological Survey (USGS) site. Again, this site is designed for adults, yet students are fascinated with the details provided. On this map, you see the earthquakes across the globe as they occur in real-time.


During class, we explore the ring of fire area on a daily basis to see how many earthquakes actually occur. The number is more than you think. Students are amazed by it. The map also allows you to click each quake and easily see its measurement on the Richter scale. You can also zoom in to the areas and view exactly where on land the earthquake has rumbled. The site offers a satellite view to enhance your understanding of who may be impacted.


My students noticed several earthquakes happening in Hawaii during one class. They wanted to see how close the quakes were to each other and if they were occurring near a town. I zoomed in and was able to see what towns the quakes were near. And with satellite view, we could see they were occurring in an area with little to no development. Using the scale, we could measure the distance between where the quakes were occurring. We were able to use multiple skill sets in one swoop, and students understood the value of what they had learned.


During one class, my curious students wanted me to pull up the map. I think they were trying to distract me from other topics, but I put the map on our screen anyway. In real time, we watched while the USGS posted a current earthquake on the map. Labeled red, the dot popped up while we were exploring. Of course, I had to leave the map onscreen for the rest of our class period so that we could see if another quake occurred. My students were beyond excited and very engaged.


While I often use these sites as an introduction activity, the maps also lend themselves to other more in-depth experiences. Some ideas include:


  • Tracking weather across the country

  • Researching weather and climate in specific areas

  • Counting daily earthquakes and graphing the results

  • Researching the geography of areas and comparing with weather or earthquakes

  • Tracking hurricanes throughout the season


While student-focused maps and sites are helpful, students sometimes are more engaged when presented with tools they know experts in the real world use. The experience often boosts student confidence and helps to engage them. Some of my students even explore the sites on their own time, and inspiring this curiosity and engagement is exactly what I want to do.


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