How do we teach mapping?

By Katie Kowalsky | February 26, 2015

One of my incredible projects I’m currently working on is research under Dr. Robert Roth on CartoCSS and aesthetic map tiles. It’s a goal of mine to be able to reproduce highly stylized, aesthetic maps within a modern mapping framework, namely vector tile sets. While researching and designing a lab structure, I fall into these incredible discussions on cartographic education with my peers that I find hugely important to this process.

In the past, I’ve emailed with Lyzi Diamond about education because I find a disconnect from how we teach cartography in the classroom. As Lyzi and I participate in a lot of out of the classroom cartographic education (namely, Maptime!), we have a lot of specific frustrations of how the classroom should act. I’ve always feared the ‘teach the software x’ approach because what if the industry uses software y in a few years?

Today I had a meeting with some of the most talented cartographers I know: Tanya Buckingham, Assistant Director for the UW-Madison Cartography Lab, Dr. Robert Roth, professor of cartography/GIS at UW-Madison, Daniel Huffman, a freelance cartographer and guest lecturer at UW-Madison in cartography, Carl Sack, a PhD candidate who is an interactive cartography wiz, Evan Applegate, a tremendous graphics editor at Bloomberg Businessweek and master’s student in cartography/GIS, Chelsea Nestel, a master’s student in cartography/GIS who invokes incredible artistry to her maps, and then myself.

I was sitting in a round table discussion about how we’re innovating an advanced cartographic graphic design course and just watching these talented people actively care about the future of our field. We talked about the hopes for our programs and how to address what Lyzi and I have talked about: teaching problem solving instead of a program.

The traditional challenges in our field have been about teaching how to create a successful process and workflow for cartographic projects. Too often have I, or other students, sat down to a project and had it take twice as long as it should because of not knowing how to get to a certain step. We should learn the best practices, the stuff you typically need to pick up through working in a production cartography company. We’re also stressing the importance of reusability in mapping and the essentials for improved workflow performance.

The goal of our discussion is finding a connection between practical applications of cartography, the cultural context of our field, and the academic knowledge we need to produce maps. We have to rewrite lectures to be more related to the labs and the labs to relate more to real-life scenarios. I want students to come out of a lab seeing all the beautiful tile sets made by Mapbox designers and be inspired to create something similar (and not be afraid to do so!). I think our goals for the students to not only learn the skills to successfully problem solve making a map in a particular software, but also how to make it great every time you build a map outside of the classroom.

Cartography doesn’t need a specific ‘Product X’ to make a map- you need the skills to discern what the best application to use for the map you want to make. There’s a huge divide between making someone for class that is incredible and then going back to the same software 6 months later and making something else. The best outcome is when you can get to this magical point where you feel familiar with something and even comfortable. I think that’s what we should be at the least be aiming for. Then it’s time to do a ridiculously hard but fun challenge in it.

The struggle that I face currently in cartography is how to best teach mapping- whether I’m organizing a Maptime event,  helping people who know programming but not cartography, or just giving advice to people. I think we work best as a field when we’re accommodating new ways to help people and more discussions like this can significantly help students deciding if they want to invest their time and energy into becoming a cartographer or learning about our beautiful field.

This is a tremendous field that cares deeply about education: from formal academic courses to informal meetups. There are an incredible about of resources in our field and most people I’ve met care about the ways we learn our skills and that’s powerful. I don’t ever believe that there’s one way to teach a subject, let alone one as intricate as cartography/GIS, but I’d love to chat about your opinion on the subject.

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