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Boston Students Get A Glimpse Of A Whole New World, With Different Maps

The Peters — or, Gall-Peters — projection, an attempt to better reflect the position of the equator and the size of the continents. While things get squishy in places, most experts agree that this projection gives a much more accurate depiction of the world than the commonly used Mercator projection. Joseph Amditis/Flickr hide caption

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Joseph Amditis/Flickr

The Peters — or, Gall-Peters — projection, an attempt to better reflect the position of the equator and the size of the continents. While things get squishy in places, most experts agree that this projection gives a much more accurate depiction of the world than the commonly used Mercator projection.

Joseph Amditis/Flickr

Updated at 10:15 a.m. ET Thursday

Students throughout Boston are getting a radically different view of the world, one laminated 24-by-36-inch sheet of paper at a time.

Beginning last Thursday, Boston Public Schools administrators have been sending social studies teachers in the second, seventh and 11th grades new maps for their classrooms — depictions that more accurately portray the sizes of Earth's continents.

When many people picture a map of the world, what they're probably thinking of is a Mercator projection, a representation that despite its apparent distortions has been around more than 400 years. It's that map that hangs in most classrooms throughout the U.S., including those in Boston.

By contrast, the map known as the Peters projection, which city authorities are now meting out to many of the city's classrooms, is a relative fledgling. Introduced at a conference in Germany in 1974, historian Arno Peters' map aims to fix the Mercator's inaccuracies, which vastly exaggerate the size of land masses approaching the north and south poles — and in doing so, help prop up a decidedly eurocentric worldview.

Therein lies the rub.

"This is the start of a three-year effort to decolonize the curriculum in our public schools," said Colin Rose, assistant superintendent of opportunity and achievement gaps for Boston Public Schools, tells The Guardian.

"Eighty-six percent of our students are students of color," Hayden Frederick-Clarke, director of cultural proficiency for BPS, tells member station WBUR. "Maps that they are presented with generally classify the places that they're from as small and insignificant. It only seems right that we would present them with an accurate view of themselves."

The issue rests partly in the problem of how to transpose the 3-D shape of Earth onto a two-dimensional sheet of paper. For Gerardus Mercator — the Flemish cartographer who in 1569 came up with the map still most commonly used today — the central goal was to support navigation along colonial trade routes. And the central point on the globe for him was, of course, Europe.

The Mercator projection, invented by Gerardus Mercator in 1569. Among the misconceptions fostered by this representation is a vast overestimation of the size of Europe and Alaska, as well as the diminishment of South America and Africa. Joseph Amditis/Flickr hide caption

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Joseph Amditis/Flickr

The Mercator projection, invented by Gerardus Mercator in 1569. Among the misconceptions fostered by this representation is a vast overestimation of the size of Europe and Alaska, as well as the diminishment of South America and Africa.

Joseph Amditis/Flickr

The trouble is that his projection, which places northern Europe at the heart of the world and shrinks Africa and South America, is far from precise. The Guardian breaks down some of the most notable discrepancies:

"South America is made to look about the same size as Europe, when in fact it is almost twice as large, and Greenland looks roughly the size of Africa when it is actually about 14 times smaller. Alaska looks bigger than Mexico and Germany is in the middle of the picture, not to the north — because Mercator moved the equator."

In an email to NPR after this story was published, Bob Abramms, founder of map publisher ODT, clarifies that shift in the equator's position is not Mercator's doing, exactly, but rather a function of just how massive his projection unintentionally renders Antarctica.

"The Mercator 'projection' does have the equator at the mid-point," Abramms writes. "Only map PUBLISHERS made a decision not to waste paper and ink on a huge Antarctica, so the publishers frequently crop off the continent and then re-center the map ... resulting in the equator being 2/3 the way down the map."

All this adds up to a view of the world that sets one set of cultures center stage, while marginalizing and even radically shrinking others. And that can have a real effect on students of all backgrounds.

"Once students feel like the school isn't being truthful, there's a tendency to shut down and reject information," Frederick-Clarke tells WBUR.

Enter Peters' projection — which is also known as the Gall-Peters projection, since it's virtually identical to a projection put forward by the Scottish cartographer James Gall in the 19th century. This vision of the world harbors its own fair share of inaccuracies, but generally it comes closer to depicting the continents as they are.

"The Peters projection has created a lot of controversy over the years because it distorts shapes," Abramms tells the Guardian, "but it's enormously visually important in terms of the scale and position of the terrain on the Earth, showing correct size and proportion of the continents."

"So this is about maps, but it isn't about maps," Rose tells the Boston Globe. "It's about a paradigm shift in our district. We've had a very fixed view that is very Eurocentric. How do we talk about other viewpoints? This is a great jump off point."

Natacha Scott, Boston Public Schools history and social studies director, believes the 125-school district is the first in the U.S. to make the formal shift. And while the Mercator projections are not getting removed, she tells the Guardian that the influx of Peters projections is already having an effect on the students who encounter them.

"Some of their reactions were quite funny," she says, "but it was also amazingly interesting to see them questioning what they thought they knew."