New Perspectives in Science Education

Edition 13

Accepted Abstracts

Maps: A Visual Tool in the STEM Undergraduate Experience

Barbara Losoff, University of Colorado Boulder (United States)

Deborah Hollis, University of Colorado Boulder (United States)

Danny Long, University of Colorado Boulder (United States)

Ilene Raynes, University of Colorado Boulder (United States)

Naomi Heiser, University of Colorado Boulder (United States)


As a visualization tool, maps can illuminate and situate scientific discourse in the academic teaching mission. Ken Foote, noted US geographer and science educator, explains that maps “are the preeminent means of recording and communicating information about the location and spatial characteristics of the natural world and of society and culture.” Scientific primary works are often overlooked as a means to engage STEM undergraduate students in scientific discovery and advancement.  Although many such works are awe-inspiring, for example works by Galileo or Newton, they also present challenges for undergraduates because it is difficult for students to grasp the scientific notions of the time without additional context.  To create this context, and thereby increase student understanding, University of Colorado Boulder librarians use historic maps with primary scientific works from a special collections and archives department, as recommended by University of Virginia’s Rare Book School map specialist Joel Kovarsky.

Today’s college students are a generation raised in an image-rich information landscape. Current educational learning theory stresses visual literacy as one means to recognize different learning styles. Using teaching methods that pair a facsimile copy of Copernicus’s 1543 work on the heliocentric theory with the tenth edition of Gerhard Mercator’s Atlas (1630), or Charles Darwin’s 1859 first edition of On the Origin of the Species with an 1846 atlas from Elijah Burritt’s Geography of the Heavens and Class Book of Astronomy, our approach situates scientific advancements within a larger sphere, one that incorporates the views of society writ large. This presentation will focus on action research conducted over several semesters that features maps in courses ranging from the history of epidemics and disease or science writing, to biomedical ethics. We create a learning environment that contextualizes scientific discourse through the juxtaposition of maps with contemporary primary science materials.  Based on collaboration and feedback from STEM faculty, we respond to varied learning styles to foster a deeper understanding of science and society.

Keywords: maps, visual literacy, pedagogy


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