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Geography students at Calvin College have created online national atlases for Eritrea, Thailand, and Nepal, with more on the way. The project benefits the Calvin students but also has the potential to benefit students in the countries for which the atlases are produced.

“Many students in developing nations do not have a comprehensive resource to study the geographical dimensions and spatial relationships of their country, and if [a national atlas] is available, it is often not current [nor] freely available online for public consumption,” explained geography professor Jason VanHorn. “This project is not intended to replace a true national atlas, but acts as a service to provide a simple one to those who do not have the resources available to produce one.”

VanHorn noted that his students started with Thailand because it ranks higher in the Human Development Index and thus more data has been produced on the country. That enabled the students to work through a series of methodological challenges before tackling the next atlas.

To create the online atlases, each Calvin student in Geography 261 completes a small number of maps using a standard mapping atlas template, then the maps are put together and posted online to form a complex atlas. VanHorn said the Calvin classes have thus far highlighted countries that have not been previously represented this way online.

A national atlas usually has general reference and thematic maps at the subnational level, often several hundred. Themes cover not only physical geography, but also population density, monthly income per household, number of students attending school, and religious distribution. The Calvin atlases also include such information as the geographic distribution of dentists in a country, where registered vehicles are located, and crime statistics.

Students who have been involved in Calvin’s Geographic Information Systems courses and the atlas project say it’s been a satisfying way to apply classroom learning.

Andrew Quackenbush, a 2010 graduate from Naperville, Ill., with degrees in geography and international development, said it felt good to be part of something that will make a difference for years to come.

“We’ve already had several emails from Eritreans, thanking us for doing this project,” VanHorn added.

The atlas project continues this upcoming school year, with students creating maps for Niger and Ethiopia. For more information, see the National Atlas for Developing Countries at

—Matt Kucinski, Calvin College

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