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GIS in the Classroom

November 15th is National GIS day. It seems like there is a day for everything these days, but this is one of those days I can get behind and support unlike National Coffee Day or National Donut Day. One of the things these National Days of "whatever" does really well is bring an item, concept, theme to the mainstream media. #GISDay is trending 10th on my Twitter currently.

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is one of those concepts that is often foreign to elementary and secondary teachers. I have found myself explaining what GIS is and what GIS stands for way more often than I probably really should. However, when I think about it, if I wasn't a Geologist and Engineer, if I had gone right into Education, would I know and understand GIS to the depth that I do. I would hope that I would, and knowing the type of learner and teacher that I am, I probably would be using it, but from experience, I know that I am not the norm.

So what is GIS? I often explain to my students that GIS is the database that contains layers of images and data points. GIS is digital mapping that allows for real time changes and immersion of data that traditional paper maps can not. Traditional maps represent one subset of data at a very specific point in time. Changes can not be made to those maps until a revision is printed, sometimes years or decades later. While, GIS, represents more fluid data, more up to date data and is open source, allowing for multiple users and contributors. GIS has so many applications in the real world from mineral and mining resources, natural disaster mapping, mapping epidemics and pandemics, analyzing migratory patterns and animal populations and so much more. GIS can be used in any discipline.

One of the great things about GIS and teaching with any maps is that it uses spatial analysis skills. We use spatial analysis and reasoning in our everyday life but we might not know that we are using a specific skill when we do it. We use spatial reasoning when we pack a suitcase, when we re-arrange the refrigerator to make things fit, when we understand how object relate to one another based on their specific location. We use them when we give verbal driving directions such as "take a right at the church" or "It's the blue house after the rock painted like Snoopy". We know that a specific persons house is located based on its proximity to that church or that rock. We know how things fit into our suitcases to maximize our space and weight. We know that if we move the milk container in the refrigerator, we can fit the big casserole pan in. GIS and maps use these same skills however in my experience, using these skills in the classroom has "gone the way of the dodo". Technology plays a great role in this decrease in these skills and others. Information is at the tip of our finger tips. Siri, Cortana, Alexa or Google tells us where to turn when we need driving driving directions.

If I picked you up and dropped you in Seattle or Boston or Dallas, could you make your way home without digital direction/GPS apps? Most of you will answer no and begin to panic. This is one of the reasons I use GIS in the classroom. Increasing spatial reasoning skills, fun technology and real world applications. Real world application is my biggest purpose for teaching anything. So often as teachers we get lost in the minutia of facts, set curriculums, standards, administrative nightmares that often take precedence over the real world applications for concepts. As a geologist, and one who worked in the industry before making the leap to education, I am overly focused on making those real life connections for students. I used it in my career so I feel it is something I need to expose my students to in the classroom, even at the middle school level. My experience has been overly positive. Students love investigating crime maps and natural disaster maps, as well as creating their own GIS maps.

Some of the ways that GIS can be used in the classroom include:

  • teacher created GIS maps

  • student created GIS maps

  • investigating and analyzing existing GIS maps such as crime rate maps, population maps, invasive species maps, natural disaster maps, etc

The possibilities are endless when we open up our minds and embrace a new tool. If you want to learn more about using GIS in the classroom, contact me directly here or come find me at the Christa McAuliffe Technology Conference in Manchester, NH on November 29th, I'll be presenting a session in the afternoon on using GIS tools in the classroom with a colleague.

Here are a few of Lesson Plans for using GIS in the classroom:

The Invasive Species Project

My Fantasy Vacation Project

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