Giant map makes for fun lessons in Juneau schools

Students in several Juneau schools got to stand on one of the world’s largest maps this week and get an interesting interactive lesson in geography.

National Geographic has created a series of “Giant Traveling Maps” it loans out to geography programs. The first maps featured continents, but the map that’s traveling throughout Alaska right now is a map of the Pacific Ocean. On Monday the map was at Montessori Borealis, Tuesday at Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School and Wednesday at Harborview Elementary School.

The map was loaned to the Alaska Geographic Alliance and University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geography Program. Katie Kennedy, education and outreach coordinator for UAF and coordinator for the alliance, helped classroom teachers enhance their geography lessons about the Pacific.

Tom McKenna’s fourth-grade class at Harborview was one of them, as students filed into the gymnasium they lined up along the 26-feet-by-35-feet map in their sock-clad feet.

Kennedy explained the ground rules — no shoes, no bare feet, no writing utensils on the map and no gum or food.

Kennedy gave a little background on the Pacific Ocean before starting interactive activities with the students — such as, it’s the deepest ocean in the world, widest from east to west and has the most seismic activity.

“When you look at the ocean from where we live, you’re seeing the waves at the top,” Kennedy explained. “This map is the opposite. This map is showing you what’s on the ocean floor. If you see something that looks like a mountain, it is a mountain — it’s just under the water.”

Kennedy told students the map also featured the tallest mountain on the planet — which is Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Kennedy said most of the mountain is underwater. When Mt. Everest is measured as the tallest, typically it’s measured from sea level as a base. However, Mauna Kea is about 4,000 feet taller than Mt. Everest from base to peak. Mauna Kea only has about 13,000 of those feet above water, though.

The giant map showed edges of four continents. Kennedy selected student volunteers and asked them to stand on specific continents. Then, she selected four girls to lay in a line across the map.

“Oooh cool, I’m the equator,” one said as she made herself into a line.

She also had students represent the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. She explained the northern and southern hemispheres and said the region in between the two zones outside of the equator is called the tropics.

Kennedy had students stand on the “white areas of the map” — which were the strips of underwater mountains.

“Do you feel like you’re standing in a shallow or deep part of the ocean?” she asked. Shallow, they answered. “You are representing the ocean floor at that point.”

Kennedy had a couple of students sit on the maps where there were dark blue colorings — basins. Then she had a few students lay down  on the map in different blue-shaded spots called trenches — the deepest parts of the ocean. Kennedy demonstrated the distance of heights between those standing, sitting, and laying down related to the parts of the water.

They were then given an activity that branched them into four teams to find 16 of the 22 trenches on the map. The teams got cards that gave descriptive clues as to where on the map the trench was. Then, they were to take red interlocking blocks and stack them to the appropriate depth of the trench. One block represented 2,000 feet.

Students observed that most of them were close to land and that they were sitting on something important — tectonic plates.

Kennedy and students demonstrated earthquakes that occur from those plates and gave information on what happens when those plates press against each other and shift. Kennedy said this area has a subduction zone (the ring of fire), which is another reason why there are also a lot of volcanos in the Pacific. When an ocean plate slides underneath, land on the other side rises up.

Another game had teams of students take cards with ocean animals and place them in the most common areas where they’re found in the pacific — giant squids, octopuses, Portuguese men-of-war, dolphins and several others.

The final game was Simon Says — which had Simon (Kennedy) asking students to stand on locations they’d talked about earlier — the equator, Tropic of Capricorn, trenches, etc. Students quickly jumped to the areas — sometimes too quickly — reacting without a “Simon says.”

Kennedy’s last piece of knowledge for this class was this map also shows the deepest trench in the entire ocean — the Mariana Trench — which has recently made the news when filmmaker James Cameron reached the bottom of the deepest part of the trench (almost 7 miles down).

Cameron is the first to reach the bottom of the trench in a single-manned vessel.

Kennedy has traveled to more than 20 schools across the state with the giant map and varies the lesson with the age of the students. Younger students have a little bit less on their plate and activities catered to their level, while seventh-graders, for example, also would be asked to stand on the map and spin in the direction of the currents and would have other activities that show what currents do in the area.

“I’ve been really lucky,” Kennedy said. “This is the fifth school year in a row I’ve been able to borrow one of these traveling maps. So far every map in the series have been here (Alaska). I try to go to new communities each year and share it. It’s primarily to get students excited about geography; Just to bring geography to life for them. A lot of times it’s hard to grasp some of these concepts just looking at a paper map. You get the special distribution of things when you can walk on it, place objects on it. It really helps to teach a lot of geographic concepts.”

Kennedy also likes being an extra resource for teachers to help enhance their geography lessons. She learned about the option when she first started working for the alliance and believes it’s a good method to teach geography.

“To me it’s just the wow factor, it’s just so much fun,” she said. “I borrowed one right away. It was such a hit. It was even better than I thought it would be. It was so powerful. I realized it was something I wanted to sustain and share it with as many as I can. Sometimes we can reach 3,500 kids each school year with these. We only get to borrow them for a limited amount of time.”

The university and the alliance sponsored the map this year.

“If people are interested in learning more about the Giant Traveling Map program in Alaska, they’re welcome to contact me,” she said.

Kennedy can be reached at or by calling 907-474-6121.

For online resources, visit or

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at


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