Oct 03

Navigating ocean swells with stick maps

By Bev Caswell

As one of the authors of Taking Shape: Activities to Develop Geometric and Spatial Thinking, I’ve been focusing on the role of spatial reasoning in our lives.  It’s really interesting how many opportunities there are to see spatial thinking in the world once you start looking! I was recently at the Boston Museum of Science, and I was amazed at the many interactive exhibits that highlighted the role of spatial thinking. One exhibit was especially interesting – not only because it is such a great example of spatial reasoning in navigation – but more importantly in the way that indigenous knowledges contribute to the understanding of science. In this case, oceanography.

The exhibit, Mapping the World Around Us, featured the use of “stick maps” by the Inuit and the people of the Marshall Islands (near Australia) as a way to teach and learn navigation skills. Those living on the Marshall Islands would use the maps to navigate the coast of the Pacific Ocean by canoe; it showed how the islands disrupted the movement of the ocean water so the navigator could act accordingly. The maps demonstrate an elaborate navigation system and an incredibly sophisticated understanding of ocean swells. Island locations were represented by shells tied to the frame. Curved sticks represented wave-crests on the ocean surface and their direction as they approached an island or interacted with other wave-crests.

A stick map

A close-up of the stick map on display at the museum

The maps were used by master sailors to teach students navigation skills by focusing on wave patterns. They were memorized, but not taken on the journey. Talk about honing your visualization skills!

 “So often, we think about science as trying to make sense of everything else in the world, but it could also be the other way around. This local oceanographic knowledge might influence our scientific understanding as well.”
– Joseph Genz, professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii

If you want more information on the use of stick maps, read this blog by Amusing Planet or this article on the Smithsonian website.

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