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Vanderbilt faculty collaborate to develop tools for teaching personal geography and spatial awareness

by Jun. 7, 2021, 9:30 AM

A team of researchers has developed publicly available resources for teaching personal geography and critical spatial inquiry. Mapping Self in Society (MaSelfS) is a collaboration among faculty in learning sciences, archaeology and spatial analysis at Vanderbilt University and Georgia State University. The team recently launched a public website offering teaching frameworks and curricular tools for educators working in different disciplines, including social studies and computer science.

Through five unique activities available on the site, students learn how to capture personal mobility data using their smartphones, place themselves “on the map” in meaningful ways, understand the basics of spatial data, and visualize their personal geography in relation to broader society.

“These activities increase student awareness of their physical space and the communities in which they interact,” said Rogers Hall, professor of teaching and learning. “We hope these tools open students’ eyes to the way they are moving through space and help them see important assets and features in their communities that they previously may have missed.”

The guiding questions for each activity support reflective conversations about data ethics, surveillance, and the uneven geography of learning opportunities in society. The activities are appropriate for middle school, high school and college students.

“These tools provide a novel way to visualize your movements,” said Natalie Robbins, a research analyst for the Spatial Analysis Research Lab, directed by Associate Professor of Anthropology Steven Wernke. “Most 21st century students think about their movement in terms of Google or Apple Maps. For them to see their daily patterns and behaviors broken down in a new way can promote deeper discussions and learning opportunities.”

In addition to student learning, resources on the MaSelfS website are designed for researchers who would like to use new, location-based technologies in ethically sensitive ways. The tools are assets for research in public history, spatial and computational analysis of human geography, and design studies of learning on the move.

“As an archaeologist, I am interested in how people make places and places make people,” Wernke said. “This cross-institutional collaboration allowed us to examine the ways in which people interacted with their environment in the past, to explore how they interact in the present day, and to predict how they will interact in the future.”

The MaSelfS framework and website were developed with support from the Spencer Foundation (202000208) and the National Science Foundation (Tangibility, 0816406; BLUES, 1623690).

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