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5 Ways to Teach about Scale Using ArcGIS Online

03-17-2023 07:16 AM
Esri Notable Contributor
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Scale is an important topic not only in teaching GIS, but in geography, economics, mathematics, environmental science, planning, business, and many other disciplines.  Scale is a cross-cutting theme that enables better understanding of change across space and across time, and the phenomena that cause those changes. This essay features 4 different ways to teach about map scale.  Each way uses easy-to-use tools and maps in ArcGIS Online, requires no sign-in, and yet each is powerful in teaching this concept in hands-on mode!   

These tools and activities can also be used in classrooms ranging from primary, secondary, to college and university level, and I have done so in my instruction over the past year.  They can be taught with one projector and one computer, and also in a lab setting where students have their own computer devices.  The data and tools are online, so they can be taught equally effectively in an online environment just as well as in a face-to-face setting.

I created the following story map to support these activities:

The easiest way to teach these activities is for you to open the above story map.  I have loaded all the data and tools in the story map, and it is all ready to go.  I suggest popping each map into a separate web browser tab for more screen space.

The original reason I created this story map around this topic was for a recent lightning talk I gave for the University of California Santa Barbara:

In my 3-minute lightning talk, I covered all 4 methods, so I know these activities can be accomplished quickly!  But in the classroom, obviously, you'll want to devote a bit more time to each.  However, I contend that they can be accomplished in a short amount of time--I suggest spending at least 15 minutes for each activity.  Warning--some of these tools are so fascinating, particularly the Mars scale and measurement one, that you will likely have to pull students away from them at some point!

If you need additional guiding questions, see the 4-part video series I created, where I model how these tools and these topics can be taught:

Part 1 - Using USGS topographic basemaps: 

Part 2 - Using demographic data at different levels of census geography: 

Part 3 - Using hydrography data from the global to the local scale: 

Part 4 - Using the Earth political boundaries 3D web mapping application and the Mars scale and measurement 3D web mapping application: 

I hope you find this topic, resources, and strategies to be useful, and I look forward to your comments!


Teaching about scale.  This screenshot is from method 1, described above. 

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About the Author
I believe that spatial thinking can transform education and society through the application of Geographic Information Systems for instruction, research, administration, and policy. I hold 3 degrees in Geography, have served at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and USGS as a cartographer and geographer, and teach a variety of F2F (Face to Face) (including T3G) and online courses. I have authored a variety of books and textbooks about the environment, STEM, GIS, and education. These include "Interpreting Our World", "Essentials of the Environment", "Tribal GIS", "The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data", "International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS In Secondary Education", "Spatial Mathematics" and others. I write for 2 blogs, 2 monthly podcasts, and a variety of journals, and have created over 5,000 videos on the Our Earth YouTube channel. Yet, as time passes, the more I realize my own limitations and that this is a lifelong learning endeavor and thus I actively seek mentors and collaborators.