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New Ways to Teach about Africa

GIS Materials for Educators

By Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Team

You say your students don't know the difference between the Sahel and the Sahara or Eritrea and Ethiopia? Esri created a new set of teaching resources about Africa at to support the 2006 Geography Awareness Week and as part of Esri's role as a member of the National Geographic My Wonderful World coalition.

click to enlarge
Map of northwestern Africa showing the average number of days that snow covers the ground.

Even if you missed Geography Awareness Week, anytime is a good time to teach about Africa's physical and cultural environments, its history, and current events. The concepts in the lessons, such as the human impact on the environment, the flow of people and ideas, and the relationship of climate to land use and settlement, are easily expandable to other continents.

Using National Geographic's MapMachine

A set of 10 new lessons invite students to investigate the world's second largest continent using National Geographic's MapMachine. The MapMachine, powered by Esri technology, allows anyone to explore the earth through the creation of customizable maps at any scale. These maps range from satellite image maps to those showing ecoregions, landforms, average temperature, soils, coal fields, weather events, earthquakes, environmental threats, or population density. Each lesson encourages students to dig deep and ask the "whys of where" questions that are at the heart of geographic inquiry. Students read and analyze National Geographic articles, use the Xpeditions Atlas, and examine other articles and satellite images to supplement their investigations with the MapMachine. Through these activities, the lessons help develop investigative research skills that will serve students well throughout their lives.

"Does It Ever Snow In Africa?" is one set of lessons that challenges stereotypes about the continent. Students explore El Azizia, Libya, the location at which the current highest temperature on the planet was recorded one scorching day in 1922 (58 C, 136 F). Despite high temperatures in El Azizia, the Sahara, and the tropical rainforest, students discover that there are two areas where snow can lie on the ground for more than 100 days annually. One of these places is Ifrane, Morocco. It may surprise students to learn it is a ski area!

After students investigate places in South Africa that also receive snow and experience cold temperatures, they begin to understand that it makes sense that far away from the equator that the climate is colder. However, they are then asked to locate two places very near the equator that also receive snow. Further investigation reveals that these are two snow-capped volcanoes that include Mount Kilimanjaro.

Other lessons about Africa include The Doorways of Africa. In this lesson, students learn about life in the three entry points to Europe and Asia—Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, and Djibouti. Another lesson takes students on a flight along the prime meridian and the equator. Africa is the only continent where this is possible. Students can also examine Africa's ecoregions and assess which are healthy and which are most imperiled. They can explore Egypt and the Nile, seasonal changes on the continent, Africa's islands, and Africa's four great lakes—Kivu, Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria.

Another lesson puts them in touch with two classmates who want to move to Africa. Each classmate has different reasons for moving there. Students are asked to select the most appropriate country and city for each student to live. Finally, the lesson Up In Smoke invites exploration of fires across Africa that were set by people. It discusses the reasons for those fires and the geographic and seasonal distribution of the fires.

Using Maps from the Geography Network

Other activities on the site allow users to create customized maps from ArcExplorer Web. With only an Internet-connected browser on Windows or Macintosh computers, students can view one or multiple map services, set transparency levels on each, save the maps, and even include links to these maps on their own Web site. ArcExplorer Web supports Web Map Services (WMS) and ArcIMS services, which means students can access hundreds of map services available through Internet mapping sites from the world's leading publishers such as the Geography Network (

A map of the world time zones can be used to examine the number of time zones in Africa and give students an impression of the size of the continent. Students can also examine Africa's population density, its major land features and relief, and its biological distinctiveness. Which of these areas are in or near areas with significant human population density? They can identify the United Nations Environmental Programme world heritage sites in Africa and how Africa's ecoregions relate to the number of cities in each.

Further Investigation Using GIS

Using ArcGIS software, students can continue investigating Africa. They can discover how much of the continent is occupied by different ecosystems, habitats, and population densities and investigate the relationships of modern country boundaries with the patterns of groups of people and their religions and languages. They can study diverse topics such as why diamond mines exist in South Africa and why oil exists in Nigeria. A wealth of data for Africa exists on the Esri Data & Maps sample data CDs that come with ArcGIS software.

  • An additional data source that has been successfully used in education is the Africa CD, one of the Global GIS CDs available from the American Geological Institute.
  • Two sources of ready-made lessons on Africa are the United States Geological Survey's Exploring Africa's Physical and Cultural Geography Using GIS site at and the Esri ArcLessons site at

Using Interviews and Articles

The Geography Awareness Week 2006 site also invites students to learn about Africa through a series of engaging articles and interviews. National Geographic explorer and conservationist Michael Fay and scientist Jane Goodall are just two of the people whose interviews are available from this site. The site also has links to National Geographic and Esri resources about how to dig deeper into the discipline of geography and how to use GIS with students to foster geographic investigation and inquiry. Find more about these resources by visiting

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