Building Geographical Understanding for Students Using Google Maps

Post in News by Laura Jakubowski on 12th February 2020

As many people know, Google has a great suite of apps that can be used for educational means through G Suite for Education. Teachers love to use Google Classroom, Docs, Forms and Slides with students, but often overlook or are not aware of the awesome little-known features of other apps. This month, I want to highlight the app most people use when they are in their car but not their classroom: Google Maps!

My Maps

Be sure to explore Google Maps fully, but for the purposes of this blog, I would like to take a look at one way to integrate this app in social studies classrooms. The My Maps feature is quite the game changer when you are looking to have students create their own maps, develop an understanding of places and locations, as well as spatial awareness throughout history.

With the My Maps feature, you can have students create maps of their own to solidify or even showcase their understanding. Additionally, as a teacher, you can create maps to meet the purpose of your lesson delivery and then, share them with students or other teachers. Let’s go through the steps as if we were creating a map of the Louisiana Purchase.


Project example: The Lewis and Clark Expedition

1. Open Google Maps and navigate to the menu on the top left corner. Then, click on the three-lined menu to open it.


2. Scroll down to Your places and click on it.


3. Navigate to the far right of the window and select Maps. From here a new page of the window will open and you will see at the bottom of the window: Create Map. This will open a new tab on your Chrome browser, which will allow you to start creating and navigating a new map.


Now that you have a new map open, give your map a title and layers by double clicking on the Untitled map to give it a title and Untitled layer to give it a layer name. Layers can be used to indicate many things. Check out the example in #5 below.


5. For example, if you wanted to create a map for the Louisiana Purchase with your students, you would create one layer to show the size of the actual purchase (using the “draw line” tool to create a polygon to shade over the entire space of the Louisiana Purchase). Then, you would a second layer to map out the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition (using the Draw line tool to create a path of their travel and using the Add marker tool to denote important spots and stops along their expedition). You should choose multiple layers to toggle layers on and off (using the checkmark next to each layer) to show and hide various things from students.


6. To create the details described above in each layer, you would need to use the Drawing menu. Be sure to be clicked into the layer you want showing when you use the Drawing Menu.

7. Google_Maps_Blog_8 Each tool on the Drawing Menu has a different function, but the first is the Undo and Redo buttons. If you click these buttons, you can undo or redo any change you make to the drawings on the layer.

8. Google_Maps_Blog_9 This tool is the Select items button, which allows you to click on a marker or a line or a polygon and then move it around the map layer. This tool is helpful if you place something in the wrong spot, but you do not want to redraw it!

9. Google_Maps_Blog_10 The Add marker tool allows you to drop a pin on your map. You can provide a name and description for each marker that you drop. This will help your students explain important features on the map layer or mark important parts of the journey in the name and then expand upon them in detail in the description. If you were tracking the Lewis and Clark expedition, it would be helpful to add markers when they encountered certain people or Native groups along the way.

10. Google_Maps_Blog_11 The Add line tool enables you to create a line along your map layer. Perfect for drawing the route Lewis and Clark took. Alternatively, in the Louisiana Purchase layer of the map, you could connect all the dots to create a polygon or one big shape to show the outline of land included in the purchase. Just remember, to create your polygon, you must start and end your line in the same place.

11. Google_Maps_Blog_12 If you wanted to add directions, the Add directions tool is your selection. This tool easily shows you how to get from marker to marker. However, students could use it to show how travel as changed. For example, with Lewis and Clark, perhaps your students would use the tool to map out a more efficient route in comparison.

12. Google_Maps_Blog_13 Finally, the last button is the Measure distances and areas tool. This tool is a great way for students to think mathematically about their map. The students are able to click and drag an invisible line from point-to-point on the map to see the distance and/or area (with more than two points) of the places. In our example of the Louisiana Purchase, this would be a great tool to have students truly grasp how much territory was bought and sold through that fateful purchase.

After reading this blog, you should be able to use Google Maps and My Maps within it to create maps with your students! Remember, although we used the United States as an example, Google Maps is by no means limited to just the United States. You can use My Maps to go from country to country and calculate the distance traveled by explorers like Zheng He and others. Your imagination is the limit!

To explore more lessons for your classroom, be sure to check out our Social Studies section on OTIS for educators! We have tons of great ideas for all subject areas, including STEM.

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