Whether or not this was one of my favorite projects is hard to say. This particular project was one where I aimed to tie students’ hands behind their backs, to create unnecessary obstacles to encourage them to venture outside of their comfort zone and meet a unique problem head-on.

Loosely paraphrasing how I introduced the project:

The year is 1503. You have been tasked with exploring the new and unknown land of the Americas with the expressed purpose of establishing a colony, mapping the region, and gathering resources.

You have but a single team of twenty. The land you now call home is uncharted, no maps, no information, just miles and miles of wilderness and no sense of what lies beyond.

You and your team will have to grow your knowledge of the land, fondly dubbed Uchonia. Using 16th century resources, you and your team will need to make a map.

Your resources:

  • Five meter piece of string (3)
  • Rulers available only at base camp
  • Pens, markers, or assorted writing tools
  • A notebook to record your measurements and observations

Your task:

  • Split into 4 groups, each assigned a region
  • Make an action plan, prepare your tools
  • Time limit: 15 minutes
  • Return to base camp to draw your maps
  • Synthesize maps into one large map

An artist’s representation of the land of Uchonia and resident wildlife, circa 1501

My expectations were realistic. Students would struggle. With each student using a haphazard or unique approach to measuring the school yard, planned on a mess of contributions that would probably end up looking something like this:

Students would be able to create a map, use a scale, show the different elements of a map in practice, and they did. But I had hoped to also illustrate just how difficult it was for ancient explorers to map the lands at the time period in question, and in turn, students would have to apply problem solving skills in addressing the wild cards I had set forth.

However in the end, my 6th graders knocked the project out of the park. Not only were they able to put their tools to use, they adapted to any inconsistencies in their observations and made a map that worked together quite well.

I came out realizing a very simple fact I had previously taken for granted: set standards high because students will so very often surprise.

Collaborative Map-Making Project, 6-1: Age of Discovery Unit