The cool-but-intimidating blog, GeekDad had an intriguing post this morning. Eric Zimmermann, a geography enthusiast living in China, posted about his hobby of documenting "Confluence Points" - the exact point where a whole degree of Latitude and Longitude meet.

He points out that a lot of the time, it isn't easy to get to these confluence points; they aren't necessarily near major roads (or even land, for that matter. For the purposes of demonstration, I just looked up Zero Degrees Latitude/Zero Degrees Longitude and found that lies it well off the coast of West Africa.) This makes getting to these points something of an adventure.

This got me thinking...

Where is the nearest confluence point in relation to my school?

I looked up the town of Deerfield, New Hampshire on GoogleMaps, but discovered to my surprise that it was placed in the White Mountains, several hours' drive from its actual location.


Well, that happens sometimes.

So I fell back on my next-most-favorite mapping tool - Wikipedia. I looked up Deerfield, then looked for the link at the right of the page, labeled "Coordinates".

Clicking this took me to a page called "GeoHack", which told me way, WAY more about Deerfield's latitude and longitude than I had ever wanted to know. 

Among other useful tools, there were links to take me directly to those coordinates in MapQuest, GoogleEarth and about a dozen other mapping websites. I didn't use any of these links this time, but nodded with satisfaction at how, once again, Wikipedia is much cooler than anyone gives it credit for.

I highlighted and copied the coordinates for Deerfield, then plugged them back into GoogleMaps. I removed all the fractions of degrees from the coordinates, which left me with 40 Degrees North Latitude, 71 Degrees West Longitude.

I hit Return...

...and got this.

It turns out that our nearest confluence point is just up the road a little bit - though apparently in somebody's back yard. It wouldn't really be all that hard to zip up there and take a picture of it.

[Admittedly, you could calculate this just as easily with a good map and a ruler, but I was very lazy this morning and didn't want to get off my couch.]

All this leads me to think about what kind of classroom projects I could design out of this.

Here's what I've come up with so far:

1.  This is a good way to introduce or reinforce the concepts of Latitude and Longitude. A highly motivated classroom teacher could have his or her students map calculate and map all the confluence points in New Hampshire. (For teachers in bigger states, they could calculate the points around their county.)  [Curriculum connections to Math]

2.  If the class was studying Map Reading or Orienteering, this could make for a really good field trip - finding and photographing the closest confluence points.  [Curriculum connections to Physical Education]

3.  The class could design a webpage or blog with an interactive map, showing all the confluence points and providing links to photos the students had taken of them.  [Curriculum connections to Literacy and Technology standards]

4.  A very motivated class could do some research and find other elementary or middle schools near other, more out-of-reach confluence points and email teachers or students there to take pictures of them and email them back.  [Curriculum connections to more Literacy and Technology standards]

The only real question remaining is - am I that motivated?

Time will tell.

Or Why You Should Let Go of Your Fear and Learn to Embrace Wikipedia

I was at a conference last year, where a presenter explained to a roomful of teachers why we should all fear and distrust Wikipedia. It can, afterall, be edited and modified by anyone.

Anyone at all.

Even someone irresponsible and stupid. (It may have been my imagination, but I think she stared at me as she said that.)

As it turns out, she believes so strongly that Wikipedia is a force for evil that she actually encourages students to vandalize the site whenever possible. The assumption is, I guess, that once students see that even they can contribute to a research source, they will distrust it so utterly that they will stop using it.

To be fair, many teachers of good will earnestly disagree on how much students should be encouraged (or allowed) to use the online, collaborative encyclopedia for their research.

Wikipedia is certainly not mistake-free. There have been some dramatic, errors on Wikipedia that have made the news in the past few years, especially fake articles about nonexistant historical figures, but overall, Wikipedia is pretty accurate. I have not been able to find any news stories about fake articles that date from any more recently than 2005, and the British science journal Nature has done a survey of scientific articles on Wikipedia and determined that it is roughly as accurate in scientific matters as the Encyclopedia Britannica, with four errors to every three in Britannica.

False, damaging or misleading information can be inserted into any article, but these are usually caught within minutes and corrected.

My feeling - and this is based on nothing but my notoriously unreliable gut-check - is that if I use Wikipedia all the time (and I do), I'd be hypocritical to tell my students not to. They're going to have to navigate in a world of less-than-100%-trustworthy information and Wikipedia is a good tool to help them be critical consumers of information.

Anyway, enough ranting.

Here are three really cool tricks that you can do with Wikipedia:

 1. Mapping Stuff

When you look up something on Wikipedia that can be mapped - a landmark, a Civil War battle, etc... - in the top, right corner of the page, there will be a link labeled, "Coordinates". If you click on that link, it will take you to a page with the exact geographic coordinates for the place you are looking up, in several different formats.

You can copy any of these coordinates and paste them into the search box in GoogleMaps and map the exact location of whatever it is you are researching, or even ask Wikipedia to map it for you on any number of mapping sites.  I have used this when I've been making up PowerPoints for geography lessons and I've had my students use it for a Civil War mapping project.

2. Finding Out How Accurate an Article Is

In the top, left corner of any Wikipedia article is a tab marked "discussion". Surprisingly, this is not a forum for everyday people to discuss the topic of the article - Cobalt 14 or Jessica Simpson's chihuahua's love life - but a history of the discussion that Wikipedia editors have had about the content of the article. They discuss in great, even obsessive depth, the spelling and grammar, the sources of information and the history of knuckleheads trying to mess with the accuracy of the article.

It's distressingly fascinating. ("Distressingly", because while I know that I am a really big nerd, this points out just how big.)

3. Citing Your Sources

In a sidebar on the left-hand side of every Wikipedia article is a box labeled "toolbox". At the bottom of that box is a link labeled, "Cite this page". If you click on it, it will take you to a page with a properly cited bibliography entry for the Wikipedia article you are reading in several different formats - Chicago, APA, etc... - and what is more, it will be for the exact version of the article you are reading! Because Wikipedia articles can change very quickly, this citation will refer specifically to the version that you or your student actually read. How cool is that?

For More Information:

The really cool (okay - nerdy but interesting) podcast, Jumping Monkeys just did an interview with Pheobe Ayers, a librarian, Wikipedia Editor and one of the authors of the new book How Wikipedia Works.

Click here for a link to the show.

Click here to download just the interview with Pheobe Ayers.