Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations, a column celebrating the work of geography’s most influential professionals. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Mr. Raphael Heath, head of geography at the Royal High School in Bath, England, and digital learning consultant teacher for the Girls’ Day School Trust.

When I first heard of the Ashcloud Apocalypse Challenge, I wondered, “Is this a movie or a video game?” I quickly realized that it was even better — a global activity with a goal to promote the learning of geography. It also became apparent to me that the educator behind it was an incredibly innovative geography instructor, Mr. Raphael Heath. Three years later, my respect for Raphael continues to grow.

Raphael serves as head of geography at Royal High School in Bath, in the U.K. He was a winner of the Pearson Teaching Award in 2016 for his outstanding use of digital technology, and presented with the Royal Geographical Society’s Award for Excellence in Secondary Education in 2015. These are just a few of his many awards for his dedication, innovation in teaching, and service, which extends beyond his own school to many other schools, and indeed, the global geography community. I finally had the pleasure of working with him face to face at the Teachers Teaching Teachers GIS T3G event on the Esri campus in Redlands, California last year, and he was even more exceptional than I had imagined.

Raphael applies an innovative use of technologies, including GIS, throughout education, as evidenced in his instructional videos, maps, and lessons, as well as the A Level investigation he developed into the geography of crime. (A Levels are Advanced Level qualifications, part of the General Certificate of Education in the U.K.) Some of his global educational initiatives are centered around GIS Day, an event held every November celebrating the positive impact GIS is making in our world. The Ashcloud Apocalypse Challenge was no exception. In it, students were challenged to use a series of interactive web maps that Raphael created in ArcGIS Online to calculate the level of risk to their home location from a massive volcanic eruption. Thousands of students around the world added their data into these web maps, and the resulting patterns inspired the students to think about issues relating to planning for natural hazards. This initiative was awarded a Silver Publishers Award from the Geographical Association in 2016. He has held a Map Off event for the past several years, beginning in 2014 where 11,500 students rated the quality of life in their home area according to a range of social and environmental criteria. The Map Off held in 2016 focused on a survey of people’s thoughts about global warming. As in past years, Raphael is keen about using web mapping GIS tools to present the results, shown here in ArcGIS Online. These web maps and data always provide an excellent springboard for discussion.

Raphael also serves in a leadership role in the Girls’ Day School Trust, a group of 26 independent schools and two academies in the U.K., established in 1872. These schools include nearly 4,000 staff and 20,000 students, aged 3 through 18. The Trust’s vision is to champion excellence in teaching and learning, infused with meaningful technology. Geography is a key part of the Girls’ Day School Trust — so key that one of their students, Danielle Allen-Chhokar of Bromley High, was Highly Commended in the acclaimed Young Geographer of the Year competition by the Royal Geographical Society, after answering the question: “How is Britain Changing?”

I asked Raphael if he could identify the most important thing, whether a class, book, person, event, or something else, that convinced him to enter this field. He said, “I started teaching in the year 2000 and for the first few years I was unaware of the potential for using GIS with school classes. At one open day, a prospective parent asked me what we were doing with GIS in our lessons and it made me think that this was a gap I ought to be investigating. At that time, GIS tools were just starting to become available for schools, although this was before the evolution of online GIS applications. I was really excited by what could be done with ArcMap desktop software at that time. It was hard work getting to grips with the software, and not the easiest system to use with classes, but I loved the power to conduct spatial analysis and create visually stunning maps. I felt it really added an important fundamental skill toolset for geography students, preparing them for geographical analysis in the real world. We conducted investigations such as identifying flood risk for local settlements and examining patterns in deprivation. Then the development of ArcGIS Online was the real game changer for schools. It provided the perfect platform to use with students as it is easy to understand, packed full of amazing datasets and has incredibly powerful analytical tools. The possibilities and opportunities became endless, and the value to students is enormous.”

“There is something about maps and GIS which appeal to me,” he continued. “I see maps as things of great intricate beauty and fascination. Over the last few years I have been captivated by the opportunities provided by the richness and power of ArcGIS Online for use with my students in school. I love being able to manipulate map data and to explore the spatial relationships within it. I feel that GIS enhances the teaching of geography by providing hugely detailed up-to-date information for students to explore. It allows for independent learning amongst students to explore information. I also see its value in letting students learn by accident. Using GIS, students often stumble upon information which helps them make new connections and correct misconceptions about locations and the nature of places. This can be a very powerful learning experience for students. GIS also lets me provide significantly challenging problem-solving and thinking skills tasks. I am always looking for ways to promote the value of geography and GIS in my school. I am also passionate about spreading the word about the value of GIS to the wider community of teachers.”

When asked which person, class, or topic has inspired him most during his career, Raphael replied, “I owe a lot to Jason Sawle at Esri UK. He developed Digital Worlds as an early GIS package to use in schools. He understood what schools needed in order to engage with GIS. He was very supportive for me in those early days when I was trying to get to grips with GIS for the first time. He then invited me to be part of a small group of teachers from across the U.K. to serve as Centres of Excellence in promoting the use of GIS in schools just as ArcGIS Online was being launched. This was a really inspiring opportunity and led me to speaking at conferences, running training workshops, and writing articles about my work with classes. It was great to have the opportunity to share my ideas with others and it also pushed me to continue to innovate. Jason is passionate about getting more schools engaged with GIS and is always producing innovative new resources to showcase and explain how students can use various aspects of ArcGIS Online.”

“I am also inspired by the [Girls Day School Trust] network of schools of which I am part. Often in education we work in relative isolation and it can be hard to find new inspiration. By being part of the GDST network of 26 schools around the U.K. we have a lot of collaboration between our geography departments, which allows us to share best practice and inspire each other. This is a network of very enthusiastic and dynamic teachers which creates an atmosphere of striving for excellence in what we do. Ultimately, I am also motivated and inspired by my students. I am lucky to have taught many highly motivated students over the years who have shown great interest in geography. Together we look for ways to push the boundaries of our knowledge and skills in the subject, and it has been really rewarding to see them go onto university, study, and succeed in a wide range of national geography competitions including the International Geography Olympiad, The Trinity College Cambridge essay prize, the Geographical Association’s International Competition (post 16), the Royal Geographical Society Young Geographer of the Year, and even a national Esri UK award!”

Of what project in geography is Raphael proudest? “I am really lucky to be part of … the Girls Day School Trust. As part of this, I benefit from being able to collaborate between teachers in different schools. Our network set up subject collaboration groups and I was championing the work across our geography departments. Recently I took on a new role to share best practice in using digital technology in schools across our organisation. Having started to use ArcGIS Online, I thought it would be really interesting to conduct projects across our GDST schools and beyond, where students could collaborate on a GIS investigation. As a result, over the last few years I have been developing a global collaborative student mapping activity called the Map Off. This occurs in mid-November to celebrate world GIS day. To date around 27,000 students have taken part in these events. Each year the theme is different. After months of working to design the activities and promote them to a wider audience, it is really exciting to see the data start to pour in from students all around the world. It shows just how interconnected the world is and the power of GIS to bring large data sets together to address global issues. Each of these events was designed to promote the value of GIS in schools and encourage students to develop important spatial literacy skills. These events have won awards from Esri UK, the U.K. Geographical Association, and the Royal Geographical Society. I am really grateful for the huge engagement by other teachers with these events. It is fantastic to be part of such a great collaborate community which recognises the value of working together to enrich the opportunities of our students. I really appreciate the support of Esri in these events, which is an organisation that shows a genuine commitment to supporting access to GIS in education.”

What does Raphael believe is the most important thing the geographic community needs to work on? “I would encourage the geographical community to think about how we can engage students with GIS. We need to demonstrate to students the wide variety of ways in which GIS is used in everyday life so that they appreciate its relevance. Professionals can think about how they can explain [the ways] they use GIS in their work so that students appreciate the opportunities it can offer them. It is important to articulate the core skills which geography provides students that will be of use to them throughout their lives. We also need to showcase maps and GIS work in inspiring and innovative ways. The increasing use of online and interactive maps is helping to engage students in spatial patterns along with visually striking maps that are eye-catching and intriguing. Esri’s Storymaps gallery is a great example of making this kind of inspiring work accessible. We need to give students lots of opportunities to create maps of their own so they start to take ownership over GIS and see it as a community they can contribute to. Finally, we need to seek out ways to collaborate, both in terms of sharing our best practice and in working on shared projects which engage our students and make them more aware and interested in their surroundings and global interconnections.”

I asked Raphael if he would share some advice to new geographers and educators. “My advice is really focused on teachers and students who are new to using GIS. I would advise them to set up a free Esri developer account and get playing. Grab some data such as live earthquakes or local crime data and overlay layers to look at patterns, and then see what you can do with the analysis tools. You will quickly make some stunning maps and get hooked. Take a look at the K-12 GeoInquiries lessons and other support materials, such as on my Map Off website and the ArcGIS Book to give you ideas, and pretty soon you will have a curriculum filled with meaningful and enriching GIS activities. Finally, engage with the GIS educator community to keep inspired with fresh ideas.”

Find out more about Raphael, about his school’s geography department, and follow him on Twitter.