Cartography and Mapping Skills for Transportation

Written by Carly Hallman

In the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the U.S. Department of Education found that only 20% of students in 12th grade were considered proficient in basic map skills. The abilities to understand map notation and read directions are not inherent; they must be taught. It’s important to include map skills and geography at all levels of learning. Knowing where we are in the world helps us relate to other countries and populations. But map skills provide even more practical value on the personal level.

Modern life is inundated with technology, including satellite navigation systems in our cars and personal mapping applications on our phones. But even with this advanced technology, the user is still the most important part of the process. Blindly following electronic navigation can be impractical or even dangerous. Navigation technology is highly advanced and reliable, but it isn’t perfect. Users still need to be able to recognize hazards and unfeasible routes and navigate around them. We also need to be able to interpret what a mapping system is telling us. Our recognition of map symbols can make the difference between arriving at our destination on time and finding ourselves lost.

Recreational travel is strongly affected by mapping skills as well. Hiking and camping are among the outdoor activities that emphasize personal navigation. GPS devices and apps don’t always work in remote areas, where you may not be able to get a cellular signal or satellite reception. In such cases, people need to be able to read a map, orient themselves using landmarks, and understand latitude and longitude. Whether we use paper or electronic maps, the essential skills are the same.

Of course, map skills aren’t the only reason to pay attention to geography. A thorough understanding of our place in the world is important when we consider how we relate to other people. No matter how large or small of a town we live in, we all live on one of the seven continents. Knowing where we are in the world helps us to identify with other people around the globe, leading us to appreciate our differences while celebrating the many things we have in common. Studying geography in general helps us to understand our planet. By examining the land masses and vast oceans that make up Earth, we can gain insight into how the planet developed over time. That can help us to predict the effects of climate change, gauge the availability of fresh water in the future, and identify potential problem areas.

When we go beyond reading maps, we come to the art and science of cartography, or the making of maps. Travelers have valued the creation of accurate maps for thousands of years. In early times, those who documented the borders of countries and the routes of rivers were regarded as sages. That legacy remains intact with today’s high-tech digital cartography. Modern maps grant companies, countries, and citizens an unprecedented degree of accuracy in location data. Reviewing some of the world’s map collections can be like stepping into a time machine, at once fascinating us with how far we’ve come and reminding us of the wonders those early mappers accomplished.

Longitude/Latitude, Parts of a Map, and the Coordinate System

World Continents and Oceans

General Geography Games and Websites

Cartography and Map Collections