GEOG 486
Cartography and Visualization

GEOG 486 Syllabus


This syllabus is divided into several sections. You can read it sequentially by scrolling down the length of the document or by clicking on any of the links below to “jump” to specific sections. That said, it is essential that you read the entire document as well as material covered in the Course Orientation. Together these serve the role of our course "contract."


Fritz Kessler

435 Earth and Engineering Sciences Building
University Park, PA 16801

College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University

  • Phone: (814) 863-1508 (The country code for the United States is 1)
  • E-mail: Please use the course e-mail system


Students are welcome to contact me via e-mail at anytime. I will usually respond within 24 hours (Saturdays and Sundays may vary). While e-mail correspondence will generally cover the majority of questions and comments that arise, you are welcome to contact me by telephone as well. The number listed above is my office phone. I will usually answer calls between 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., U.S. Eastern Time. If you phone outside of that time window, you can leave a message with your number and I will return your call as soon as I can.

Course Overview

GEOG 486: CARTOGRAPHY AND VISUALIZATION. Cartographic design projects emphasizing effective visual thinking and visual communication with geographic information systems.
Prerequisites: GEOG 484.

GEOG 486 is one of several courses students may choose as their final course in the Certificate Program in Geographic Information Systems. The goal of GEOG 486 is for the students to understand and apply cartographic theory for visual communication and visual thinking, and be able to create, evaluate, and critique reference and thematic maps using GIS software. The course is organized around seven projects and a capstone assignment. Each project includes readings, quizzes, and discussions about concepts and tools in cartography and visualization. Through the course projects, students confront realistic problem scenarios that incorporate such skills and concepts as creating symbolization schemes, coordinate systems and map projections, creating isoline and other terrain representations, interpolation, classification schemes, multivariate representation and representation of data uncertainty. Those who successfully complete the course are able to design and produce effective reference and thematic maps using GIS software, and can interpret and critique maps and related information graphics. The Final Assessment of the course is a Capstone Project that takes place during Weeks 9 and 10 of the course. In this final project, students are asked to create a multivariate thematic map on a subject of their choice, and work with peers to create critiques that, in turn, are used to revise the maps.

The course is ten weeks in length and is offered quarterly through Penn State’s World Campus.

The course materials consist of Esri ArcGIS with Spatial Analyst and a required course website that contains the on-line lessons and communications tools, such as discussion forums and an e-mail system.

What will be expected of you?

This course requires a minimum of 8-12 hours of student activity each week, depending on the speed at which you work. Included in the 8-12 hours each week is time to complete projects and related activities. You'll be glad to know that you don't have to show up for class at a certain time! All you need to do is complete each project and a quiz before the published deadline.

You will need to check out the course message boards regularly. That's where students and instructors share comments, pose questions, and suggest answers. I strongly encourage you to get in the habit of logging in to the course website every day to check in on the class. With only occasional exceptions, I check message boards six days a week (Monday through Friday and once on the weekend). You can be sure that I will read, but not necessarily respond to, every single message.

My colleagues and I have worked hard to make this the most effective and convenient educational experience possible. How much and how well you learn is ultimately up to you. You will succeed if you are diligent about keeping up with the class schedule, and if you take advantage of opportunities to communicate with me, as well as with your fellow students.

For a more detailed look at what will be covered in each lesson, as well as due dates for our assignments and activities, please refer to the semester-specific course schedule that is part of this syllabus (see "Course Schedule").

Course Objectives

At the successful completion of this course, students should be able to:

  • Acquire GIS data and create a map that visually communicates two or more variables related to a subject.
  • Employ cartographic theory to select visual representations and symbols that fit the logic of the data being mapped.
  • Design a layout using visual hierarchy, balance, and figure-ground of text and graphics to quickly communicate the subject and purpose of the map.
  • Interpret, evaluate and critique maps in writing with the goal of increasing discourse, understanding and appreciation of map design.

Required Course Materials

In order to take this course, you need to have the required course materials listed below. All (other) materials needed for this course are presented online through our course website and in Canvas. In order to access the online materials, you need to have an active Penn State Access Account user ID and password (used to access the on-line course resources). If you have any questions about obtaining or activating your Penn State Access Account, please contact the Outreach Helpdesk. They can be reached at 1-800-252-3592 in the US or internationally at 814-865-5403 (country code 1). You may reach them by e-mail at (link sends e-mail).

In addition, you will need the following software:

  • ArcGIS 10.x and ArcGIS Spatial Analyst
    For this course, you will need to have an up-to-date, educational license of Esri's ArcView software (and its Spatial Analyst extension) installed on your personal computer. If you don't already own ArcInfo version 10.x (or ArcEditor 10.x), you may acquire your own ArcGIS Desktop 10.x educational license with extensions at no cost to you. See our program's FAQ for complete ordering instructions.

If you have questions regarding the software purchase, please contact the instructor.

Important Note:

ArcGIS Desktop 10.x is a commercial software package that is restricted to personal use by the student. It is unlawful for anyone to use this software package without the appropriate commercial license from Esri Inc. to generate personal or corporate profit or revenue.

Using the Library

Just like on-campus students, as a Penn State student you have a wealth of library resources available to you!

As a user of Penn State Libraries, you can...

  • search for journal articles (many are even immediately available in full-text)
  • request articles that aren't available in full-text and have them delivered electronically
  • borrow books and other materials and have them delivered to your doorstep
  • access materials that your instructor has put on Electronic Reserve
  • talk to reference librarians in real time using chat, phone, and e-mail
  • ...and much more!

To learn more about their services, see the Library Information for Off-site Users.

Assignments and Grading

Students earn grades that reflect the extent to which they achieve the learning objectives listed above. Opportunities to demonstrate learning include:

  • Eight graded lesson quizzes (20% of course grade);
  • Seven lesson projects (60% of course grade); and
  • The capstone project (20% of course grade).

Grading for this class consists of the following:

  • 7 lesson projects
  • 8 quizzes
  • 1 term-long project

Special Notes
The quizzes make up 20% of the grade, (each one being 1/8 of the 20% or 2.5% of the final grade).
Weekly assignments are 60% of the course grade. One assignment takes two lessons (one map project for lesson 2 and 3 together) which will be weighted double the others, so that essentially each week's work is worth 1/8 of the 60% (or 7.5% of the final grade).

The term-long project is worth 20% of your final grade.

Class participation will be considered in grading for those whose final course grade is close to the next letter grade.

Assignments must be posted to the dropbox in Canvas by the assigned due date or a late penalty will be imposed.

Be sure to include your name on all of the assignments that you submit.

Please keep a copy of all your work. We cannot assume responsibility for lost items.

Term-Long Project Evaluation criteria include:

  • Quality
    Quality criteria will be posted in the Deliverables section of each project.
  • Completeness
    All required elements should be present. Project reports should be properly linked to your Penn State personal home page.
  • Timeliness
    The term-long project must be submitted by the assigned due date or a late penalty will be imposed. Contact the instructor if you need extra time. Most activity deliverables are due one week from the start of the assignment (refer to the course calendar for the exact schedule). Please submit your deliverables on time.
Letter Grade and Corresponding Percentages
Letter Grade Percentage Range
A 90-100%
A- 87.5-89.9%
B+ 85-87.4%
B 80-84.9%
B- 77.5-79.9%
C+ 75-77.4%
C 70-74.9%
D 60-69.9%
F <60%
X Unsatisfactory (student did not participate)

Percentages refer to the proportion of all possible points earned by the student.


Students need to earn at least a "C" grade in each of the four courses to be eligible for the GIS certificate.

GEOG 486 Course Schedule

imagePrintable Schedule

Below you will find a summary of the lessons for this course and the associated time frames. Assignment information will be located on each lesson's checklist. This course is 10 weeks in length. Each lesson is one week long and opens on Wednesdays.

Course Orientation
Date: Week 0

Course Orientation Objectives:

  • understand the expectations we have of you as a student in GEOG 486
  • locate key information about the course, including assignments, due dates, technical information, places to get help, and course policies
  • understand the rules and regulations regarding Academic Integrity and plagiarism at Penn State
  • understand how to communicate in this course environment
  • articulate your own course expectations as a student in GEOG 486
Lesson 1: Visual Thinking and Visual Communication
Date: Week 1
  • Describe how cartography can support visual thinking and visual communication.
  • Illustrate the use of cartography for visual communication.
  • Explain how map purpose and audience influence map design.
  • Demonstrate the use of cartography for visual thinking.
Readings: Lesson 1 course materials
  • Complete Project 1 Deliverables.
  • Take the Lesson 1 Quiz.
Lesson 2: Symbolizing Features and Creating a Visual Hierarchy
Date: Week 2
  • Recognize the visual variables that are better for nominal data, and those better for ordinal data.
  • Identify visual cues that contribute to the creation of a visual hierarchy.
  • Symbolize point, line, and polygon features using visual variables that fit the logic of the data.
  • Create an appropriate visual hierarchy among the symbols using placement, color scheme, size, and other visual variables.
Readings: Lesson 2 Concept Gallery
  • Submit the Lesson 2 Project.
  • Take the Lesson 2 Quiz.
Lesson 3: Labeling and Text
Date: Week 3
  • Recognize type characteristics and how they are used to distinguish nominal differences and/or ordinal differences in label hierarchies.
  • Create labels for point, line, and polygon features.
  • Use text characteristics as design variables to achieve a fitting hierarchy among the labels and symbols.
  • Organize a layout using two or more data frames and marginalia.
Readings: Lesson 3 Concept Gallery
  • Submit the Lesson 3 Project.
  • Take the Lesson 3 Quiz.
Lesson 4: Multiple Classifications
Date: Week 4
  • Interpret descriptive statistics and related graphics to aid classification choices.
  • Use color ramps that fit the logic of the data being symbolized.
  • Produce multiple classifications of the same dataset in a way that visually compares their function and some advantages and disadvantages of the classifications.
  • Create a series of maps that visually communicate differences in classification methods.
  • Create a series of maps that visually communicates change over time using custom data classes.
Readings: Lesson 4 Concept Gallery
  • Submit the Lesson 4 Project.
  • Take the Lesson 4 Quiz.
  • Begin Proposal for Capstone Project.
Lesson 5: Multiple Representations
Date: Week 5
  • Identify the data representations that are effective for mapping count data.
  • Indicate why choropleth maps are not good representations for count data.
  • Produce effective small-scale thematic maps for count data.
  • Construct a layout using multiple data frames with visual hierarchy that appropriately fits with the information to be read.
Readings: Lesson 5 Concept Gallery
  • Submit the Lesson 5 Project.
  • Take the Lesson 5 Quiz.
  • Continue working on Capstone Project Proposal.
Lesson 6: Representing Volumes and Surfaces
Date: Week 6
  • Identify methods to represent surfaces, e.g. elevation, and other continuous, smoothly changing data.
  • List attributes of 3-dimensional geographic representations.
  • Use hillshading and hypsometric tints to represent an elevation surface map.
  • Use interpolation, isoline features and classification to illustrate a surface representing precipitation.
  • Compose a layout that visually compares the two related surface phenomena.
Readings: Lesson 6 Concept Gallery
  • Submit the Lesson 6 Project.
  • Take the Lesson 6 Quiz.
  • Submit Proposal for Capstone Project
Lesson 7: A Deeper Understanding of Coordinate Systems and Projections
Date: Week 7
  • Recognize when specific projections should be used for GIS tasks.
  • Illustrate the use of coordinate system transformations.
  • Explain how coordinate system and projection differences at different scales may affect measurements and GIS operations.
  • Determine appropriate projections for scale and extent of map.
Readings: Lesson 7 Concept Gallery
  • Submit Lesson 7 Project.
  • Take the Lesson 7 Quiz.
  • Submit two peer reviews of proposals.
Lesson 8: Multivariate Representation
Week 8
  • Identify methods to represent multiple variables.
  • Describe ways to visually represent data uncertainity.
  • Examine a dataset to determine the variables to map.
  • Choose an appropriate representation to map two or more variables.
  • Produce a map that visually communicates information identified from the dataset.
Readings: Lesson 8 Concept Gallery
  • Submit Lesson 8 Project.
  • Take the Lesson 8 Quiz.
  • Submit screen capture of initial symbology for Capstone Project.
Capstone Project
Date: Weeks 9 and 10
  • Acquire GIS data and create a map that visually communicates two or more variables related to a subject.
  • Employ cartographic theory to select visual representations and symbols that fit the logic of the data being mapped.
  • Design a layout using visual hierarchy, balance, and figure-ground of text and graphics to quickly communicate the subject and purpose of the map.
  • Interpret, evaluate and critique maps in writing with the goal of increasing discourse, understanding and appreciation of map design.
Readings: n/a
  • Submit complete draft of map for peer review (Week 9).
  • Submit two peer reviews of draft projects (Middle of Week 10).
  • Submit Final Revised Project (Week 10).

Course Policies

Technical Requirements

For this course, we recommend the minimum technical requirements outlined on the Dutton Institute Technical Requirements page, including the requirements listed for same-time, synchronous communications. If you need technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the HelpDesk (for World Campus students) or the IT Service Desk (for students at all other campus locations).

Internet Connection

Access to a reliable Internet connection is required for this course. A problem with your Internet access may not be used as an excuse for late, missing, or incomplete coursework. If you experience problems with your Internet connection while working on this course, it is your responsibility to find an alternative Internet access point, such as a public library or Wi-Fi ® hotspot.

Mixed Content

This site is considered a secure web site which means that your connection is encrypted.  We do however link to content that isn't necessarily encrypted.  This is called mixed content.  By default, mixed content is blocked in Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome.  This may result in a blank page or a message saying that only secure content is displayed.  Follow the directions on our Technical Requirements page to view the mixed content.


This course must be viewed using one of the following browsers: Firefox (any version), Safari (versions 5.1 or 6.0), Chrome (0.3 or later), or Internet Explorer with the MathPlayer PlugIn. If you use any other browser, there will be pages containing equations that do not render properly. If you need technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the HelpDesk (for World Campus students) or the IT Service Desk (for students at all other campus locations).

Penn State E-mail Accounts

All official communications from the Penn State World Campus are sent to students' Penn State e-mail accounts. Be sure to check your Penn State account regularly, or forward your Penn State e-mail to your preferred e-mail account, so you don't miss any important information.

Academic Integrity

This course follows Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Academic Integrity Guidelines. Penn State defines academic integrity as "the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest and responsible manner." Academic integrity includes "a commitment not to engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation, or deception." In particular, the University defines plagiarism as "the fabrication of information and citations; submitting others' work from professional journals, books, articles, and papers; submission of other students' papers, lab results or project reports and representing the work as one's own." Penalties for violations of academic integrity may include course failure. To learn more, see Penn State's Academic Integrity training. 

Course Copyright

All course materials students receive or to which students have online access are protected by copyright laws. Students may use course materials and make copies for their own use as needed, but unauthorized distribution and/or uploading of materials without the instructor’s express permission is strictly prohibited. University Policy AD 40, the University Policy Recording of Classroom Activities and Note Taking Services addresses this issue. Students who engage in the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials may be held in violation of the University’s Code of Conduct, and/or liable under Federal and State laws.

For example, uploading completed labs, homework, or other assignments to any study site constitutes a violation of this policy.

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University's educational programs. Every Penn State campus has an office for students with disabilities. The Office for Student Disability Resources website provides contact information for Campus Disability Coordinators at every Penn State campus. For further information, please visit the Office for Student Disability Resources website

In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled. You will participate in an intake interview and provide documentation. See documentation guidelines at Applying for Services from Student Disability Resources. If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations.

Counseling and Psychological Services

Many students at Penn State face personal challenges or have psychological needs that may interfere with their academic progress, social development, or emotional wellbeing.  The university offers a variety of confidential services to help you through difficult times, including individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, consultations, online chats, and mental health screenings.  These services are provided by staff who welcome all students and embrace a philosophy respectful of clients’ cultural and religious backgrounds, and sensitive to differences in race, ability, gender identity and sexual orientation.  Services include the following:

Counseling and Psychological Services at University Park  (CAPS): 814-863-0395
Counseling Services at Commonwealth Campuses
Penn State Crisis Line (24 hours/7 days/week): 877-229-6400
Crisis Text Line (24 hours/7 days/week): Text LIONS to 741741

Reporting Bias-Motivated Incidents

Penn State takes great pride to foster a diverse and inclusive environment for students, faculty, and staff. Acts of intolerance, discrimination, or harassment due to age, ancestry, color, disability, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religious belief, sexual orientation, or veteran status are not tolerated (Policy AD29 Statement on Intolerance) and can be reported through Educational Equity via Report Bias.

Military Personnel

Veterans and currently serving military personnel and/or spouses with unique circumstances (e.g., upcoming deployments, drill/duty requirements, disabilities, VA appointments, etc.) are welcome and encouraged to communicate these, in advance if possible, to the instructor in the case that special arrangements need to be made.

Inclement Weather

In case of weather-related delays at the University, this online course will proceed as planned. Your instructor will inform you if there are any extenuating circumstances regarding content or activity due dates in the course due to weather delays. If you are affected by a weather-related emergency, please contact your instructor at the earliest possible time to make special arrangements.

Connect Online with Caution

Penn State is committed to educational access for all. Our students come from all walks of life and have diverse life experiences. As with any other online community, the lack of physical interaction in an online classroom can create a false sense of anonymity and security. While one can make new friends online, digital relationships can also be misleading. Good judgment and decision making are critical when choosing to disclose personal information to others whom you do not know.

Deferred Grades

If you are prevented from completing this course within the prescribed amount of time for reasons that are beyond your control, it is possible to have the grade deferred with the concurrence of the instructor, following Penn State Deferred Grade Policy 48-40. To seek a deferred grade, you must submit a written request (by e-mail or U.S. post) to the  instructor describing the reason(s) for the request. Non-emergency permission for filing a deferred grade must be requested before the beginning of the final examination period.  It is up to the instructor to determine whether or not you will be permitted to receive a deferred grade. If permission is granted, you will work with the instructor to establish a communication plan and a clear schedule for completion within policy.  If for any reason, the coursework for the deferred grade is not complete by the assigned time, a grade of "F" will be automatically entered on your transcript.


This course will be conducted entirely online. There will be no set class meeting times, but you will be required to complete weekly assignments with specific due dates. Many of the assignments are open for multiple days, so it is your responsibility to complete the work early if you plan to travel or participate in national holidays, religious observances or University approved activities.

If you need to request an exception due to a personal or medical emergency, contact the instructor directly as soon as you are able. Such requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Diversity, Inclusion, and Respect

Penn State is “committed to creating an educational environment which is free from intolerance directed toward individuals or groups and strives to create and maintain an environment that fosters respect for others” as stated in Policy AD29 Statement on Intolerance. All members of this class are expected to contribute to a respectful, welcoming and inclusive environment and to interact with civility.

For additional information, see:

Mandated Reporting Statement

Penn State’s policies require me, as a faculty member, to share information about incidents of sex-based discrimination and harassment (discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, and retaliation) with Penn State’s Title IX coordinator or deputy coordinators, regardless of whether the incidents are stated to me in person or shared by students as part of their coursework. For more information regarding the University's policies and procedures for responding to reports of sexual or gender-based harassment or misconduct, please visit Penn State's Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention & Response website.

Additionally, I am required to make a report on any reasonable suspicion of child abuse in accordance with the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law.


Please note that the specifics of this Course Syllabus can be changed at any time, and you will be responsible for abiding by any such changes. All changes will be communicated with you via e-mail, course announcement and/or course discussion forum.