How we mapped pumpkin spice lattes to teach students digital storytelling skills

Mapping is a great way to demonstrate how stories can take on structures beyond vertical stacks of paragraphs and images, which is why I wanted to include a map-based lesson in the digital journalism class I’m teaching at UNH this fall.

At first, I planned a Google Maps activity inspired by Northeastern’s Dan Kennedy. Then one of my students forwarded me a link to StoryMap JS and asked if we could give it a try. I’m a big believer in modeling experimentation, so I changed up the assignment and, alongside my 24 students, starting dabbling with a new storytelling tool.

StorymapJS editing screen.
StorymapJS editing screen.

Our mission was to document the pumpkin spice craze on New Hampshire’s Seacoast. We partnered with The Sound, a weekly newspaper covering arts and culture in the region. Working with a professional news outlet upped the stakes a bit for students and gave us a place to show off what we eventually named The Pumpkin Spice Index.

StoryMap JS is an an easy-to-use project of the Knight Lab at Northwestern University, and the students picked up the basics after a brief tutorial. We started brainstorming ideas for the map in September, and students had roughly a week to research and photograph their assigned pumpkin-powered product.


The pluses of StoryMap JS are many:

  • It’s free and something the students can adapt for the beats they’re covering during the second half of the semester.
  • The user interface is crisp, and there’s lot of space to play with images, hypertext and other digital elements.
  • We were also pleasantly surprised by the accuracy of the geolocation. Another perk: great documentation. Coding isn’t part of the syllabus in this particular workshop, but I still want students to recognize the building blocks of the tools they use. StoryMap’s website includes this brief, straightforward overview of advanced features.
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There was, however, one big minus to StoryMap: We were unable to create multiple logins to the same project. As a result, students had to take turns uploading their photos and pasting their text/hyperlinks into the map. We used that time to brainstorm other, more serious applications for map-based storytelling. Their ideas were fantastic and several students are planning their own map projects for later in the term.


Meg Heckman

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