Using cartograms to engage students with maps

“This is making my head hurt.”

A student made this comment to me in class on Friday because I was able to shift his view of the world by introducing cartograms. For those who are unaware, a cartogram is a special type of map that displays statistical data in a way that enlarges or reduces areas based on the frequency of a characteristic. For instance, take a look at this cartogram:

mountaineering cartogram

As you can see, this is a map of the U.S. which expands or contracts the area of a state based on the number of annual mountaineering accidents between 1951-2006. The Midwest is all pinched together because it as flat as a table. Alaska, California, Colorado, Washington, and Wyoming are swollen because that is where the most accidents occurred. Cartograms are useful because they immediately provide visual information about a variable.

For homework earlier this week students were to view my video lecture on the basics of maps. It served as a review and, since I recorded this lecture, I didn’t need to spend any class time on it. In class I explained about cartograms and displayed cartograms of the global population distribution of different world religions. In groups, students were asked to predict which religion was represented by each specific map. After checking their answers, we discussed why each specific map looked the way it did.

Try your hand at this activity by clicking on THIS LINK. Here are the religions represented by the eight maps (in random order):

  • Buddhism
  • Atheist
  • Christianity
  • Sunni Muslim
  • Shinto
  • Judaism
  • Shia Muslim
  • Hindu

Answers can be found on the second half of the same document.

And to that student who’s head was hurting: thanks for making my day. I’m elated that you were thinking in class and open to having your perceptions of the world challenged. There’s a lot more of that to come this year.

Until next time…


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