Geography Education is Larger than Life

Geography Education is Larger than Life
with National Geographic’s Giant Traveling Maps

Interview with Dan Beaupré, NGS Director of Educational Partnerships

I had the pleasure of meeting Dan Beaupré, the Director of Educational Partnerships at National Geographic, while attending the recent National Council for Geographic Education conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Dan is heading up the Giant Traveling Map project, created to promote geography literacy in America. The program is simple. Individual schools can borrow enormous floor maps from the National Geographic Society and use the accompanying teaching materials to get their students interested in learning about the world. It’s exciting and fun! And of course, it’s incredibly educational.


Dan Beaupre, National Geographic

Dan Beaupré



How did the idea come about to create this incredible program, and when did it start?
When I was a teacher, I had my students make big maps by projecting onto a wall and tracing outlines on large sheets of paper, then filling in political and topographic detail. The process of making them was educational, and the large-scale made them visually compelling. That led me to want to make larger – much larger - maps that students could walk on, immersing themselves in places and gaining an understanding of spatial relationships. After joining National Geographic years later I had the chance to make this happen when I created the first Giant Traveling Map of Africa in 2006 – a 26’ x 35’ color map printed on vinyl. It quickly became a huge hit with students and teachers.



What a brilliant idea! I am fascinated with the sheer size of these maps. How big are they, and how on earth (pun intended) are they made?
The smallest maps are 26’ x 33’ and the largest are 31’ x 41.’ We start with a published National Geographic map and edit it to make it grade-level appropriate (the maps are designed for grades K-8). We also make adjustments to the font size and physical feature data so it can be rendered at a very large scale. The maps are printed on long strips of vinyl and then sewn and heat-sealed together. It is quite an undertaking and involves a great deal of quality control, but we’ve found some people who have a lot of expertise and the right equipment for this kind of printing and stitching.



I’m still astounded that a printing project of this caliber can even be done. It must have been quite a challenge to figure out how to package and ship those maps too.
Yes! The maps are too large to ship by regular handlers, so they have to be shipped by freight companies. They are packaged to withstand the shifting that occurs in large tractor-trailers, being out in the weather on airport tarmacs, and being hauled up and down school staircases. Currently the maps ship in large polyethylene tubes, but we’re looking for better protective cases. It is an ongoing challenge! The activity props ship in wheeled cases, much like the kind used by touring bands to protect their instruments.



The maps must be made very strong since so many people have walked on them. What are the rules for keeping the maps in good shape?
The rules are very few, but essential. We insist that the maps are used indoors only. No shoes are allowed on the maps (socks must be worn) and no pens or pencils are used on them either. In general, borrowers take great care of the maps. We’ve had very few mishaps. I think teachers are so thrilled to have one of these at their schools that they go the extra mile to make sure they get good care.


National Geographic Traveling Maps



How many maps do you have?
Currently we have ten maps in circulation. Three of Africa, three of Asia, and four of North America. You may see the maps on our website.



How many maps can a school borrow at one time, and how much does it cost?
We loan one map at a time to a school. Very often a school will ask for one continent the first year, then a different continent the next year. The maps are fully booked this school year (through June 2010). Next year, the cost to a school for borrowing a map for the minimum two-week period is $450, and that includes the shipping. Schools may borrow a map for longer and receive a price break during the extended time period. Very often, schools share the expense with a neighboring school. The best situation is when a state Geography Alliance or other educational organization borrows the map and tours it around to schools, making it either free or considerably cheaper for individual schools to have access. Click here to find out how to contact state alliances.



That is surprisingly affordable. How many schools have borrowed maps since the program started?
Many! I estimate about 2,250. About 200,000 students are expected on the maps this school year. It’s very satisfying to think about the impressions these maps are making on so many young people.



What percentage of schools that request maps are actually able to borrow them from NGS?
I wish I could say it is higher, but my estimate is about 20%. We are looking into ways to expand the number of maps available for loan and are interested in making long-term loans available so maps can stay in a region longer, reaching more kids. Every day a map is in a truck moving from one place to another, that results in a loss of a few hundred students experiencing the map.


What type of teaching materials are included with each shipment of maps?
That’s my favorite question. We create special activities that teach place names, map-reading skills, and physical and cultural geography. We also create activities that deal with wildlife and environmental issues. All the activities are carefully designed to incorporate physical movement on the part of the students and be intellectually stimulating, challenging, and – importantly – be a good deal of fun. Physical movement and the use of large props (hula hoops, bean bags, foam dice, colored pylon) help facilitate this. We want students to discover knowledge on the map and sometimes that means having to play a game successfully or collaborate with somebody across the room. This mixture of challenging content, physical movement, and fun is not easy to attain, but we feel strongly that a learning tool as unique as this requires very thoughtful curriculum design. After all, the map is more of an experience than an object. It is unlike anything kids normally experience in school. It is an opportunity for them to be inspired, have their worldview shaped, and come away wanting to learn more.



I am so happy to hear about your teaching materials and methods. You are not only teaching the students about the world in a fun and memorable way, but you are also teaching the teachers how to teach geography. What sort of feedback are you getting from the schools who have already used your incredible maps?
The feedback is overwhelmingly positive. We hear from students, teachers, and principals telling us what a powerful experience the map was and how not just kids and teachers loved it but parents wanted to come in and see it. The only  negative feedback we ever receive is from teachers who wanted to borrow a map and could not get one.



Your maps are also getting a lot of media attention. Were you expecting that when you created the program?
To some extent, yes, I did expect media attention because the maps are colorful and photogenic and larger than any map most people have every seen. It is a real win to have that sort of local newspaper and television coverage, as it points to good things going on in schools, and - as many of us know – media attention on schools often focuses on the negative, so this is a powerful way to show something exciting and unique going on in schools. And it’s great for the subject of geography to get fresh and exciting exposure.



What are NGS’s future plans for the Giant Traveling Maps Program? Do you plan to make more of them?
We just established a FaceBook fan site where borrowers or want-to-be borrowers can go to share ideas, and videos as well as learn about any last-minute availability. In the next few years I would like to add South America, Europe, and even an Oceans map, but at this point I don’t have set dates for the production of those maps. I want to find ways for the maps to be more available to more schools districts and am looking for partners who can help make that happen.



What do you envision for the future for geography education in America?
The Giant Traveling Maps are just one way to energize the subject. There are others, including technological tools like Google Earth and GIS, or simulations like Real Lives. Geography is inherently interesting yet too often approached in mundane ways. It takes committed and imaginative teachers to look for compelling ways to teach geography and incorporate it into other subjects they happen to be teaching. 



Dan, Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer these questions. The National Geographic Giant Traveling Maps Project is so impressive and inspiring. You and your program are to be commended for changing the future of geography education one student at a time.   To reach Dan Beaupré, you may email him at dbeaupre[at]





Debbie Glade/smartpoodle is the Geography Awareness Editor for Wandering Educators.