Weekend Wandering 10: Reading the ABCs from Space


Back in December of last year, one of the most visually interesting of NASA Earth Observatory’s Features was released – Reading the ABCs from Space. Initially, it sounds a bit juvenile, like being back in Primary School, but when you start looking at the satellite images and the captions below, one becomes more and more engrossed (at least, I did!)

It got me thinking about how to use a resource like this for more than its face value. Right now, my students are working through constructive and destructive geologic processes that form the various types of landforms around the world and it occurred to me that they should be able to make some connections between what they are learning and what the various images show. It needs more thought and a more robust framework. but it’s an idea that will simmer quietly in the background between now and when I present the course again next year.

As my wife Laurie said, “There’s a children’s book in this!” Hmmmmmmm.


Weekend Wandering 9: Are you a Gapminder?

GapminderWhat is it about Sweden and global development statistics? I remember first learning of the Demographic Transition model based on birth and death data from a village in Sweden dating back to 1749. Now, along comes Hans Rosling who is perhaps the most important statistician alive today. He is media savvy as evidenced by his numerous TED Talk appearances. But more importantly, he spreads a message of hope for the world that everyone else is missing. As the TED website says:

In Hans Rosling’s hands, data sings.

HansRoslingYou may know of Hans Rosling from the animated bubble charts he walks you through like a sportscaster. If you’re a geographer and you haven’t heard of him, then you must – right now – watch this 10min TED Talk: Global population growth, box by box. It’s classic Hans Rosling and perhaps his most memorable video. But there’s more – much more.

In an effort to reduce world ignorance about statistics, data and how the world has changed, Hans Rosling and his son Ola, have co-founded the Gapminder Foundation. At their website you will find a number of up-to-date videos, animations and resources for better understanding how data is used constructively to show how the world is changing. If you’re an educator, then have a look at the downloadable teachers’ resources: 200 years that changed the world and  the Quiz about Global Development.

What is particularly interesting is their work in Ignorance with the Ignorance Project. Interestingly, they are using an icon of a chimpanzee. If you watch one of their TED Talk videos, you’ll know why. Basically, they ask intelligent people basic, multiple choice questions about the world and compare their answers to the reality. What becomes instantly apparent is how our knowledge of the world, based on our own personal biases and reinforced by media bias, has given us a rather distorted view of the world, so we are, in fact, out-performed by chimpanzees. Hans Rosling makes his point in this short YouTube clip from a Swedish or Danish television discussion (with English subtitles): Don’t use the media to understand the world. This is supported by data he presents in the TED Talk – How not to be ignorant about the world – where the media score no better than the rest of the public on basic world facts.

But there’s much more (I know, this is sounding like a late-night TV infomercial!) Gapminder has made available in their Downloads section, the Gapminder World Offline version for Mac, Windows and Linux. This will let you and your students “play” with the data – a perfect way for it to come alive in the classroom generating discussion and critical thinking. These are the animated bubble charts I referred to earlier, made famous by Hans Rosling’s ground-breaking TED Talk way back in 2006: The best stats you’ve ever seen. Call me a GeoGeek, but I can still remember watching that video for the first time and being amazed at how the same data and concepts I had been teaching for 15 years suddenly came alive. I couldn’t wait to show my classes and colleagues they next day.

Alternatively, you can go to the Gapminder World page and play with the data directly. The landing page shows the Wealth and Health of Nations, but you can select other charts under “Open Graph Menu” or you can directly choose x- and y-axes to create statistical comparisons. There is also a Map view for visualizing trends in one data point over time for geographic countries and regions. Powerful stuff!

Gapminder-CanadaOne trick I’ve just discovered… In Chart mode you can select “Play” to watch how the data changes over time. Run it through once then drag the time slider back to the start. Now here’s the cool part… Before selecting Play again, select a country: hover your cursor over a bubble to reveal the name. Once you’ve found the country you’re looking for, click on it. Now hit “Play” and you can watch the “trail” that country makes through time. I selected “Canada” and what becomes instantly apparent is the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 (and the end of WWI) and the effects of the Great Depression on incomes in the early 1930s. Very powerful stuff!

I’ve posted this as a Weekend Wandering because it’s the kind of website that just might capture your interest for a few hours. Being a holiday weekend (here in North America, anyway), you can spend your Labour Day Monday delving into the world of Gapminder – Enjoy!

Weekend Wandering 8 – App Review: Earth Primer

EarthPrimerI’m not usually in the habit of reviewing apps, but when Earth Primer came along, I was excited enough by its prospects to give it a try. I must admit to hesitating at the $9.99 price tag, and was thinking I would not bother. [Aside: It’s a shame, really, that we’ve become so highly price-conscious of apps that cost more than a couple of bucks, but that’s the way apps have gone. In fact, I was recently burned after paying $12.99 for an Oxford Atlas that I learned wouldn’t work after upgrading to iOS 8 and that Oxford would not be updating the app – annoying to say the least!] So, in the interests of full-disclosure, I am reviewing a free copy of the app thanks to the author, Chaim Gingold.

Let me start off by saying this is one cool app. I can’t imagine how much I would have loved to “play” with this as a 9 to 11 year old. Over my 20+ years of teaching, I’ve always maintained that if anyone could build learning into a “video game” (then computer game, then app) then we would have the most knowledgeable students around – Earth Primer goes a long way towards fulfilling that notion.

Earth Primer has four “chapters” or areas of learning: 1. Interior, 2. Surface, 3. Water and 4. Biomes. Beginning at the “Core” we work our way out to the “Crust” with “Tectonic Collisions” and “Hotspots” as well. This is well-thought-out with a logical progression of understanding. The convection current animations in the Mantle are effective, so much much so, that I miss them in subsequent animations of “Subduction”, for example. However, beyond a quick mention, where’s the Seafloor Spreading? Rifts are there and a reference to the East African Rift, but it’s difficult to talk about tectonic processes without a page on mid-oceanic ridges and, for example, Iceland. Also, I would have liked to see a connection made between the location of earthquakes, volcanoes and plate margins. What a great animation opportunity!

Another error of omission is an “Atmosphere” component. While some of the atmosphere concepts are covered elsewhere, for example, “Evaporation” is under “Water”, and one can change the temperatures of terrains and add rainfall, there is no treatment of the Sun-Earth energy balance that drives many of Earth’s EarthPrimerGalciersurface processes (and is connected to climate change which is mentioned a few times), there is nothing about climate as a whole except being casually mentioned in the various “Biomes”.

I do like how each chapter is designed, however, around an overview illustration. As well, the Biomes are arranged on a grid from cold to hot and dry to wet – nicely done and great for making connections. But, I miss a map reference when place names are mentioned. This is particularly apparent in Biomes; it appears Biomes could use a bit more work in this area as well as the addition of some photographs, as the animations are poor; e.g. Taiga shows only patchy areas of coniferous forest rather than great swathes of forest as it characteristic of the biome.

The other point of note is that Earth Primer defaults to a strictly linear path through the app. At first, this confused and frustrated me, but then again, I’m not a gamer and this app is made for 9 to 11 year-olds who would be more inclined to follow a linear route and complete tasks to get to the next “level”. While a linear approach seems counter-intuitive to today’s ways of dynamic learning, I understand that knowledge builds on knowledge. If desired, full access to all areas can be toggled on in the iOS Settings screen.

EarthPrimer-SandboxThe interactivity of the animations is wonderful, however, and is Earth Primer’s greatest strength. Each terrain responds to the earth process you introduce: raise/lower bedrock, add/remove sediment, wind, rain, raise/lower sea levels, raise/lower temperature – the permutations and combinations are immeasurable!

One area to spend some time in is the Sandbox. You start by selecting a terrain model. From there, the sky is the limit as to what you do with it. Drop the temperature, add a glacier, raise the sea level, add sand and wind – with each change the animation responds accordingly based on the principles of earth science. As you reduce the temperature, for example, even the tree types change from Tropical Broadleaf, to Temperate Deciduous then to Boreal. What a great way to have students design a terrain then talk you through the changes they make and the results of those changes. It would be nice, though, to see some tectonic sandbox terrains and tools.

Overall, Earth Primer is an intriguing app. It offers an incredible number of interactive animations that explore a large gamut of earth science processes. Animated trees and rocks are simplified into geometric shapes, but are very effective in their presentation. What I find frustrating, though, is that, while the diversity of topics is there for the most part, the depth of presentation and knowledge is, at times, lacking I know, it’s for 9-11 year olds, but there is enough potential built into app for right up to high school.

Further to examples of even greater potential mentioned above, the app explores erosion, transportation and sedimentation but only mentions weathering. And, while river deltas come at the end of “Streams” (under “Surface, not “Water”), it ignores the fact that erosion, transportation and sedimentation have been presented and only gives a still satellite view of the Nile Delta. To me, it seems like an ideal place to use an interactive animation to allow users to create a delta, having it form and grow with the different grades of materials introduced previously in “Sediments” sorting themselves downslope.

Here are summaries of what I’ve found in these first few dips into the app.


  • Interactive: it will get kids creating volcanoes and rift valleys, causing erosion with rainfall, etc. They will see the effects of warmer temperatures on glaciers, for example.
  • Animations and visuals are very well done adding to the interactive nature of the app. To be able to rotate and zoom visuals add more rain or higher temperatures, even build a glacier, are all truly amazing.
  • Sandbox: Using a variety of earth processes, although not complete, students can create terrains that they can then explain based on their learning.


  • Too shallow in places; e.g Students can create volcanoes, but there is no deeper level to learn more about types of volcanoes, features, location, etc.
  • Too simple: No mention of the Rock Cycle which is a great tie in with the “Interior”, nor climate, not sealer spreading. Mountain-building is limited to pushing up terrain with your finger in “Surface” rather than pushing plates together to cause folding, which could easily be done in “Interior” under “Continental Convergence”.
  • Use precise language in more places; e.g. Instead of “mountains might break down into sand”, the terms weathering and erosion should be introduced, perhaps with a glossary or simple a click on the word brings up a bubble with the definition.
  • Grammatical Errors or typos: e.g. “Volcanoes emit lava which cool [sic] and grow the hard shell of rock…”. Also, no mention is made of  the difference between lava and magma.
  • Earth Science Errors – I noticed some errors perhaps due to the app’s simplistic nature; e.g. at the San Andreas Fault, Earth Primer shows the North American plate moving southeast and the Pacific Plate moving northwest – this is only true in a broad, relative sense. What is actually happening is the North American Plate is moving west-southwest while the Pacific Plate is moving northwest but at a faster rate..
    Another example is with Groundwater: “If the [ground]water hits a dead end it will fill it up, creating a kind of underground lake.” It is simplistic learning like this that needs to be unlearned and re-learned correctly later on in school. It’s not a lake, but an aquifer: an underground layer of rock, sand  or soil saturated with water.

Next Steps:

  • While the soundtrack can be turned off under iOS > Settings, the sound effects cannot.
  • Add a Search function. If a student wants to go to “Erosion” they must guess that it’s under “Water > Streams”, yet erosion can also be the result of wind and glaciers and it is not found under “Sedimentation”.
  • Add map references to places named.
  • Add a slider to change the speed at which animations happen. Although they are meant to represent a thousand years per second, the clouds begin to look like pinballs bouncing around the animations.
  • Add more topics; e.g. some basic earth science topics such as the Rock Cycle and Flood Plains are not mentioned even though magma, lava and meanders are.
  • Add further, more in-depth learning. At $9.99, the price seems steep for this simple level of learning.

So, the bottom line question is this: Is Earth Primer worth the $9.99 being charged? While I applaud the work that has gone into this app, I feel there are too many missed opportunities and errors of omission to make it worth the full price; $3.99 perhaps, Even $4.99, but not $9.99. Earth Primer calls itself “A science book for playful people” – that I agree with! Does it replace a textbook for younger students? While some of the topics are covered at that age, most are not, so Earth Primer becomes a great bridge to further learning. Overwhelmingly, though, Earth Primer is certainly a great way to introduce kids to the dynamics of earth processes.

Weekend Wandering 7: 3rd World Farmer

3rdWorldFarmerI, too, cringe at the title as I am working with my students to stop using the term “3rd world” in favour of “Developing” or “Pre-Industrial”. That being said, the interactive “game” 3rd World Farmer has done more for my students towards creating empathy than anything else I have introduced to them. Suddenly, they realize what life is like for over 2.5 billion people each and every day. And those same students remember the experience for years afterwards.

Players become subsistence farmers with a family, a small plot of land and $50 to start with. They then direct their own destiny by choosing crops to grow and by suffering the hardships subsistence farmers in developing countries endure: civil war, drought, crop failures, ill health, etc. But, they also have an opportunity to invest in increasing the quality of their lives by sending their children to school, upgrading their farm with a shed and livestock, provided they earn the money to do so.

Students quickly realize the odds are stacked against them. However, that doesn’t prevent some from being “successful” in that they earn income and keep their family healthy and educated.

I use this with Grade 7s in my World Studies course along with a spreadsheet to allow them to keep track of how well they meet the goals that any family would expect from life. What is particularly interesting is how quickly they realize how different their goals in the West are from the goals of subsistence farmers.

If you like reality checks and light bulbs going on in students’ minds, then try 3rd World Farmer. I’ve added it to both the Development page on GeoKnow.net and the Agriculture page.


Weekend Wandering 6: Why do many reasonable people doubt science?

whydoubtscienceTypically, Weekend Wandering posts take the reader to a website filled with links allowing you to surf in a variety of different directions. Today’s post is the opposite. The essay by Washington Post science writer Joel Achenbach, posted on National Geographic last week – Why do many reasonable people doubt science? – is an exploration of your own thoughts and meanderings about science and how you might interpret it.

From my perspective, the most prescient quote of the whole article is from Marcia McNutt, editor of the journal Science:

Science is not a body of facts. Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.

The trouble is, we’ve been led to believe by the media and by pseudo- or pop-scientists in the media that science has all the answers. Then, when science is “wrong” or the “answers” turn out to be untrue, all of science is questioned. What science actually does, is provide possible answers, theories, typically, but not always, with 95% significance, knowing that there are other possibilities – but people and the media gloss over that part. As Joel Achenbach states:

Scientific results are always provisional, susceptible to being overturned by some future experiment or observation.

The other problem is that “science” has been co-opted by corporations to generate income. Too often, with motives of profit, science and ethics are often blurred in the business world. Add to that governments who often see their job as supporting and promoting business and we get disasters like Thalidomide.

Furthermore, we get corporate claims like “GMOs are being developed to feed a hungry world” and it’s no wonder people are questioning “science”. (Aside: Let’s face it, rightly or wrongly, GMOs are being pursued to increase profits through a host of questionable ethical practices, not the least of which is tying the sale of pesticides to specific GMO seeds).

What about climate science? Why does one detractor garner as much attention as a thousand legitimate climate scientists? The media hides behind their attempt to provide “balance”, yet, where’s the balance if a thousand people say one thing and one person says another and they both get equal air time? Any good scientist welcomes alternate views, but why is that one detractor is given equal weight when their legitimacy is clearly in doubt due to their salary or research grants being funded by big oil? The the real problem is what’s going in the background which is often obscured by the bigger foreground discussion.

“Real” science is complex. One must think to understand. So, it’s no wonder that pseudo-science, “pop” science and the media portrayal of science have caused people to question all science. How does the average person possibly judge the difference in a 30-second sound bite or a one-column article? Perhaps we must look to education… have we created a class of people educated enough to understand a little, but not academic enough to delve deeper? Has our teaching of “critical thinking” failed us in that we’ve produced critical thinkers who don’t have the discipline to learn before thinking? Perhaps Alexander Pope was correct when he said, in his 1709 An Essay on Criticism:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

Anyway… I’ve said enough. Read what Joel Achenbach has to say…

And – Happy Valentine’s Day!

Weekend Wandering 5 – The 25 Biggest Turning Points in Earth’s History

BBC25I know – it sounds like another “Big History” website, and it is, but in a simpler format. BBC Earth takes us through the big events in a visually-pleasing, easy-to-navigate way with simple (perhaps a bit simplistic) text and animations.

I find the page provides a great overview of Earth history with its strongest quality being that it is not anthropocentric as so many “Earth history” websites are. Humans are left to the very end; let’s face it, we are but a blip in Earth’s history. (Perhaps that’s the next phase of development: 25 Biggest Turning Points in Human History over on BBC History.) Even better, from an Earth science and biology perspective, is how we can learn about each successive stage as Earth as we know it unfolds. I found it easier to make mental connections between events because each was given as an overview and I didn’t get lost in the details. It is especially helpful to students new to Earth science.

Additionally, although the information is presented linearly (of course it would be), one can use the navigation buttons to the right to skip ahead and back as needed. One improvement would be to add a “hover” title or tag to each button so we know where we’re going.

One highlight for me was learning about C4 photosynthesis. I probably learned about it in botany 30+ years ago, but the short article sparked my interest and caused me to search for more information about it.

So, in one sense, where I would like to see this site develop further is in providing “places to go” to answer the myriad questions spawned by the one, simple paragraph of text per “Turning Point”. Instead of the Facebook, Twitter and Google+ icons, how about links to further knowledge?!

But perhaps that, too, is a strength in that the pages are not polluted by more links. With the world at our fingertips, further questions can be answered with a quick Google/Bing search, albeit, that, too, leads to visual pollution and a form of knowledge pollution with the thousands of “answer” pages out there. I suppose, one could always visit GeoKnow.net for more information – perhaps you’ll find the answer there! 🙂

Enjoy your weekend!

Weekend Wandering 4: Information Geographies

InternetTubeIt appears I’ve been on a data/information/infographic kick as of late. I must admit to being intrigued by the unique intersection of creativity, data and location. It certainly speaks to my interests and Information Geographies is exactly that.

It is a compendium of maps illustrating all facets of internet use from physical submarine cables (Internet Tube to the right) to the Broadband Affordability (both actual cost and cost compared to real wages). But don’t Broadband_Affordabilityjust look at these two examples; this is a Weekend Wandering, so put that pot of coffee or tea  on and immerse yourself!

In case you are interested in looking up other Geography Blogs – have a look at the list I am compiling at GeoKnow.net > GeoTech > More Great Sites. And, certainly, if you have any recommendations, add them to the comments below and I will be happy to them as well.