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Freshmen Explore If Maps Can Misrepresent Our World

Two students old a cut up skin of a round globe to show distortions when it is flat.Can a round Earth accurately be depicted on flat paper? In their Freshman Seminar class with Dr. Cynthia Sandler, ninth graders at North Salem High School embarked on this cartographic mystery to surprising revelations.

Tasked with transforming an inflatable globe into a flat map, each student group seized on a plan and a pair of scissors. Some used vertical slices along longitudes, while others got creative with zigzags or cutting around the equator. Some groups chose between intentionally splitting countries, while others cut through oceans to avoid disrupting countries. Afterward, the students compared their attempts and discussed the compromises they had to make, including adding space between land masses or stretching the map's surface, both actions deforming the shape of countries.

"I think we're seeing that a map is distorted because you can't lay a globe flat," said ninth-grader Keira. "Countries look bigger or smaller than they actually are when you see countries on a map. It's not the exact size, like a globe."

Through its map experiments, the class discovered it is only possible to convert a 3D sphere into 2D with compromises that misrepresent land size and placement. "So actually, every flat world map you've ever seen contains inaccuracies," said Sandler. "What are the consequences of the decisions when representing how we view the Earth? How have these decisions impacted our impressions about places and people?"

The Freshman Seminar course prepares students for overall success in high school, focusing this year on media literacy skills. Dissecting topics that shape society but escape critical thought is central to Sandler's unique course. The class recently investigated laptop component sources and internet infrastructure that most take for granted.

"This whole discussion started with a question about GPS. I want them to notice the ubiquitous systems of media and technology we depend on," said Sandler. "What trade-offs were made in designing the systems? How do those decisions affect us?"