©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

GIS Programs:Geography Tools for Teachers and Students 

Corsandra Stallworth and
Joseph A. Braun, Jr.

Studying geography can no longer be limited to tasks such as memorizing states and capitals, reciting definitions of landforms, or coloring between the lines to represent locations. Standards-based curricula as outlined by the National Geography Standards expect students to both ask and answer geographic questions as they acquire, organize, and analyze geographic information.1 Teaching geography now means incorporating newly available technology that allow students to “do” geography. According to Keiper, geography that is integrated with technology “can enhance students’ geography skills through authentic practice. In addition…using the computer as a tool to enhance active participation in complex authentic tasks results in a powerful learning environment.”2

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are software programs that enable students to make use of information about the earth’s surface from digitized data that record, store, and analyze a wealth of information. Geography is a visual and spatial subject, and GIS programs can easily display multiple dimensional images of an area. A GIS program organizes sets of information as layers in which each layer represents a particular type of geographical data. These layers can be thought of as overhead transparencies laid on top of one another to enrich the information being displayed.3

Students using a GIS program can view natural features, such as hills and rivers, with the click of a mouse, and quickly add or delete such geopolitical features as capitals and borders. GIS programs enable students to use “real world” data, to tabulate and analyze complex groups of facts, to incorporate new information, and to solve problems. Overall, basic knowledge of geographical concepts and information becomes broader because so much information is readily at hand and can be manipulated by the students.

This article reviews GIS technology in the form of two new CD-ROM programs: Mapmaker’s Toolkit by Tom Snyder Productions and Mapping the USA by ERIM International, Inc. Each CD-ROM is reviewed separately except for the category of Social Studies Evaluation.




General Overview

Mapmaker’s Toolkit is a CD-ROM that allows both students and teachers to view, customize, and print current and historical maps. In the Find Maps mode, the user can access a digital library of over 450 current and historical maps. The Current Maps option allows viewing of continents and oceans, world regions, and individual countries. Various thematic maps accessed through the Current Maps option also depict precipitation, land-use, temperature, population, density, and vegetation. The Historical Maps option leads to maps of U.S. history, ancient civilizations, the Middle Ages, the colonial era, and the twentieth century. To Customize Maps, the user generates simple outline maps or more detailed physical/political maps from the built-in layers feature. Special features include adding color and text to a map. There are also over 800 stamps in 30 categories of animals, crops, modes of transportation, religions, and flags of the world. To Publish Maps, the user can print single or multiple pages, or maps can be reproduced electronically through Mapmaker’s Slideshow (a separate application found on the Mapmaker’s Toolkit CD-ROM) for display over the Internet.


General Evaluation

Quality of Instructional Content

Packaged in a binder, the documentation that accompanies Mapmaker’s Toolkit displays the same user-friendly format as do other Tom Snyder Products: an overview of the CD-ROM’s contents; hardware specifications; a walk through of the program that includes installation and a step-by-step experience with its features; technical support and troubleshooting; and classroom activities. Particular strengths in the documentation are the layout and graphics. Tips are prominently displayed throughout, leaving a novice user feeling comfortable in learning how to operate the software’s tools and features.

Once the simple and brief installation process is complete, the user is introduced to the program’s features, such as finding, customizing, and publishing maps. Included here are instructions for selecting maps and filling in boundaries, adding text and stamps, and building a legend. Also described are various ways the software can be published electronically, allowing the user to export maps to word processing, photo editing, and World Wide Web applications. Accompanying Mapmaker’s Toolkit is a separate program that generates slide presentations of maps.

The classroom activities are centered around the five themes of geography and include map puzzles and travel brochures. Ideas for integrating science and history are also included. The suggestions are brief but, nonetheless, a good starting point for developing lessons.


Technical Quality

The technical quality of Tom Snyder programs is generally excellent, and Mapmaker’s Toolkit is no exception: graphics are clear, tool bars are easy to manipulate, screens load quickly, and the quality of printed maps makes them easy to read. The maps that students generate can be saved and exported in a number of graphic file formats including BMP, GIF, or PICT (Macintosh only). The program installs quickly with the availability of complete information about computer system requirements. This CD is designed to run on both Windows and Macintosh platforms.

A technical drawback to the Mapmaker’s Toolkit is the readjustment of display settings necessary to obtain an optimally sized image. In preparing this review, an adjustment of the control panel monitor settings was performed with no loss in quality of resolution; however, the display on other monitors could suffer from some loss of quality as the image is enlarged to fill the entire screen. Finally, the graphing feature screen resolution does not depict the labels for the x and y coordinates clearly, rendering these labels difficult to read.




General Overview

Mapping the U.S.A. is an interactive program of United States geography and social studies information designed for middle or secondary students. The CD-ROM features geographic data, census information, and satellite imagery of the United States. Different data sets can be queried and the data are drawn from several social science disciplines, including sociology and political science. Mapping the U.S.A. tools allow students to experience such analysis techniques as graphing and data plotting (e.g., roads and population per square mile can be plotted on maps or arrayed in tables to promote higher order thinking). At its most advanced level, this GIS program is quite sophisticated and complex; however, introductory and intermediate examples of use are also included.


General Evaluation

Quality of Instructional Content

Accompanying the Mapping the U.S.A. CD are a teacher’s manual and an instructional manual with three example lessons. The introductory lesson includes a fourteen step explanation of how to add colors, labels, and layered demographic and physical information (such as roads, population, and rivers). A measuring tool enables users to determine distance between cities, while a zooming feature makes it possible to refine the details of a map area. Also included in the introductory steps are questions that prompt students to think about the relationships among the natural and human-induced geographic components of the map they are constructing. In the introductory example, students are asked to make inferences from a comprehensive view of a layered map of roads and river networks. Finally, students learn how to save the layered scenes they create.

At the intermediate level, students are guided through a search of the database. The software allows accessed information to be plotted in the form of graphs including histogram, bar, line, and pie graphs. Again, students are asked to make comparisons from the data with which they are working. These comparisons involve such variables as income, race, population, occupation, and land-usage drawn from local, state, and national statistics. At the advanced level, the focus is narrowed to the county level and involves comparing several sets of data simultaneously. It should be noted that while data on ethnic groups is available in the database, the interaction among ethnic groups and other variables, such as African Americans and per capita income, cannot be calculated.

One feature of Mapping the U.S.A. not covered in these initial lessons for students, but included in the teacher’s manual, is the annotation component of the software that allows the user to make notes that can be added to an individual scene. This annotation feature, however, cannot be saved, thus rendering it useless. This feature failure can be attributed to the software developer’s incorporation of a secondary software application, in this case a text program, into their own product—a defect that will be corrected in the next versions according to its producer. In addition to the annotation feature, the teacher’s manual also includes five activities that serve as models from which teachers can develop their own lessons for using this program.

As noted in the teacher’s manual, once students are comfortable with operating the software, their innate curiosity can lead them to pose their own questions while exploring more scenarios. This same introductory information from the teacher’s manual is also available on the CD itself.


Technical Quality

Mapping the U.S.A. is a Windows-based product that is easy to install. Examples for its use are provided on the opening screen along with an accompanying audio sound clip of students laughing. This latter feature seemed to serve no purpose and became somewhat annoying on repeated usage. The user interface is menu-driven with accompanying window displays of bird’s eye views of map layer displays and queries to the database; a toolbar of useful functions; and function buttons that give easy access to pull down options. A unique technical feature of Mapping the U.S.A. is a tool that allows measurement in exact miles between any two points in the United States with the distance displayed at the bottom of the screen.

There are some technical drawbacks to Mapping the U.S.A. Some map layers, such as the “state shapes layer,” include Hawaii and Alaska, but only the continental U.S.A. is depicted when other layers, such as the “precipitation layer,” are accessed. Because of the amount of data that can be accessed, the CD runs a little slow as it searches for the proper map layer to display.


Social Studies Evaluation of the
GIS Programs

Social Studies Knowledge

Mapmaker’s Toolkit and Mapping the U.S.A. offer students and teachers opportunities to work with an abundance of geographic information. Both programs permit students to study the relative and exact location of positions on the earth’s surface as they generate maps. Mapmaker’s Toolkit provides a grid longitude and latitude, while Mapping the U.S.A. displays the coordinates of longitude and latitude at the bottom of the screen.

To address the geographic theme of place, students can compare human and physical characteristics using the thematic maps in Mapmaker’s Toolkit, and they can access various scenes and databases through Mapping the U.S.A. Similarly, the geographic theme of human-environmental interaction can be displayed and compared through the maps students generate. The thematic maps of Mapmaker’s Toolkit provide students with worldwide maps of population density and land usage by country, but that is the extent of the human environmental interactions available for display. The historical theme maps for the world and the United States are limited to political divisions of the environment. The databases in Mapping the U.S.A. provide an abundance of statistical profiles of demographic and land-use information that ranges from variables such as “dam type” to the number of “poultry farms.” It should be noted that the currency of data ranges from 1987 to 1994, limiting the accuracy of the interpretations drawn. The producers of Mapping the U.S.A. are preparing a CD of more current data based on Census 2000, which will be available once it is compiled.

Finally, the geographic themes of movement and region can be portrayed and studied in both programs. Mapmaker’s Toolkit allows students to use stamps to depict features such as railroads, immigration patterns, land-form types, and language of a particular region. Mapping the U.S.A. allows students to generate map scenes depicting many variables relative to movement and region. Finally, the zoom feature in both programs allows the user to portray any particular region in more detail.


Social Studies Skills

If maps are the language of geographers, then both of these programs offer wonderful opportunities for students to build and demonstrate their fluency in map-reading. Unfortunately, one by-product of mapping is the inherent nature of distortion of any map projection. Neither of these programs addresses this issue particularly well, as both programs rely on only one map projection, a Robinson. Nonetheless, the programs do offer skill development opportunities in the following ways.

Maps are symbolic representations of information about the earth and its uses. Interpreting these symbolic representations requires skill in reading and understanding a map’s legend or key, which unlocks the meaning of the symbols represented. In Mapmaker’s Toolkit, students construct their own representations through the variety of “stamps” that are available to enhance any given map’s legend. Students can also copy images from other software programs and paste them onto their maps. Additionally, they can customize the legend feature by adding, deleting, or rearranging information based on the symbols they add to any given map. Finally, they can add text and color to any map. Mapping the U.S.A. legends are limited to only the data for particular layers; for example, it will show a legend of the number of acres of corn or the amount of precipitation per state, but there is no legend for urban areas. Nor does Mapping the U.S.A. allow students to alter maps with a stamp tool.

Because both of these programs are GIS in nature, they allow students to add layers of representation to a map.
For example, students can add layers
representing the river systems, land-forms, or geopolitical boundaries. For this map skill, Mapmaker’s Toolkit has the advantage of customizing legends as students alter their symbolic representations. Mapping the U.S.A. has a wealth of information available as layers to enhance a student’s ability to enrich a map’s representation. However, students must construct their own legends outside of what the program offers if they want to depict more than one variable.

Determining distance and scale is another skill necessary in order to interpret maps. Mapping the U.S.A. provides a shortcut in the development of this skill. As described previously, it has a feature that allows the user to calculate the distance between any two points on a map. Mapmaker’s Toolkit requires the more conventional approach, where students print a map and use a ruler to calculate the distance based on its scale. Both programs, however, allow the user to change the scale of any map with their zooming features.


Social Studies Values

Critical to map reading is arriving at generalizations that lead to the development of values and attitudes towards the earth and how humans use it. As stated previously, both of these GIS programs contain multiple maps regarding various impacts placed upon the earth by human use. The Thematic and Historical Maps from Mapmaker’s Toolkit provide students with ample opportunities to examine values-related questions involving immigration patterns, trade routes, wars, and political elections. The database of Mapping the U.S.A. offers students an opportunity to work with statistical data as values-related questions are generated and answers sought. For example, identifying which states have the highest and lowest unemployment rates is a starting point for allowing students to develop hypotheses and draw conclusions about economic dislocation.

Both of these programs are rich in information, but it is only through teacher guidance that students become aware of the importance of understanding their own values and attitudes towards the earth as they engage in map reading. Fortunately, there are several values education strategies that teachers can employ with technology to develop this critical skill in interpreting the information maps provide.4



Both of the programs reviewed are impressive technology tools for geographic education. They permit students and teachers to apply constructivist-based pedagogy for working with maps and all the information that can be depicted on them. Students can work independently or in small groups once they become familiar with the operation of the programs, neither of which is too daunting for beginners. The teacher can also use these programs to generate maps for whole class instruction as appropriate.

Mapmaker’s Toolkit seems most appropriate for upper elementary, middle school, or secondary students, while Mapping the U.S.A. is better suited for middle and secondary education. In either case, these GIS programs represent new technology tools for teachers and students, and with new tools come new opportunities. Teachers and students can now address the National Geographic Standards with software applications that allow them interactive, constructivist approaches to demonstrate understandings about our geographic environment.



1. Geography for Life: National Geography Standards (Washington, DC: National Geographic Research and Exploration, 1994).

2. Timothy A. Keiper, “Connecting Authenticity, Technology, and Geography,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 12, No.1 (1999): 22-28.

3. Ibid.

4. J. Braun, P. Fernlund, and C. S. White, Technology Tools in the Social Studies (Wilsonville, OR: Franklin Beedle and Associates, 1999).


Corsandra Stallworth is an assistant professor of elementary social studies education at Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois. Joseph A. Braun, Jr., is a professor in the department.




Mapmaker’s Toolkit


Courseware Rating (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=fair, 1=poor)

General Instructional Quality 5.0

General Technical Quality 5.0

Social Studies Knowledge 5.0

Social Studies Skills 4.0

Social Studies Values 4.5

Average Rating 4.7



Tom Snyder Productions, 80 Collidge Hill Road, Watertown , MA 02172

Telephone: 800-342-0236. www.teachtsp.com



Mapmaker’s Toolkit is available for Macintosh and Windows-based computers. Macintosh requirements include at least a Macintosh LC III (68040 processor) running system 7.1 higher with 24 MB of memory recommended. Windows 95 is required on a IBM-compatible 486 (or higher) with 32 MB of memory recommended. For both versions a monitor with 256 color: 640 x 480 resolution or higher is needed. Both versions take up 20 MB of hard drive space and a CD-ROM of double speed or higher is required.


Support Materials

The teacher’s materials include the Mapmaker’s Toolkit CDs (one containing historical theme maps) and a teacher’s guide with a walkthrough, features and functions, technical information, classroom activities highlighted.

Mapping the U.S.A.


Courseware Rating (5=excellent, 4=very good, 3=good, 2=fair, 1=poor)

General Instructional Quality 4.0

General Technical Quality 3.5

Social Studies Knowledge 4.0

Social Studies Skills 4.5

Social Studies Values 4.5

Average Rating 4.1



ERMI International, Inc, P.O. Box 134008, Ann Arbor, MI 48113-4008

(734) 994-1200, www.erim-int.com



Mapping the U.S.A. is a Windows-based CD and requires a Pentium-based computer with 16 MB of RAM and at least 10 MB of free hard drive space. A monitor with 256 color: 640x480 resolution or higher is needed and a CD-ROM drive with double speed is recommended.


Support Materials

The teacher’s materials include the Mapping the U.S.A. CD and a teacher’s manual with a user’s guide and sample activities. Three examples of lessons at the end introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels is also provided.