Going Places with GIS and Geography

By Barbaree Duke

This article was originally published at Directions Magazine on November 23, 2011.

Learning powered by geography, the thread that ties the world together, can take us places yet to be explored. Students need to understand how place and location impact humans and our environment from region to region as they move through life on a changing planet. Many teachers worldwide are integrating geographic and spatial concepts to teach content. Formidable analysis and critical thinking are tied to core content to transform classrooms and promote more effective learning and problem solving, which give students more purpose in learning. Learning environments where complex subject matter and students are enlightened with place and space are our future. Everything is mappable!

GIS is an ideal tool for teaching and integrating geography concepts. GIS also offers a valuable virtual experience on a myriad of topics. It’s not limited to geography class. In fact, it’s the use of technology integrated with geography that has fostered a GIS emergence across the curriculum in English, history, math and science classes, teaching content in conjunction with geography. GIS gives us something that is above and beyond expectations – a vehicle to study content while practicing problem solving. GIS in educational settings is taking us many places. It’s going to 17th century London to study cholera, on the raft with Huckleberry Finn and into battle at Gettysburg. It’s going to the bottom of the ocean to explore hydrothermal vents or plate tectonics, and to the top of Mt. Everest to look at changes in biodiversity. It’s going to the heart of natural disasters, exploring literary journeys and to the bus stop to wait for the next ride. Our students have an opportunity to learn course content and ground it in a geographic context while practicing problem solving with tools that will be an integral part of their future.

“The 21st century needs creative thinkers and problem solvers. Our knowledge-driven world requires time-management skills, cooperative work habits, and a number of critical thinking skills,” stated Dr. Joseph Renzulli, a well-respected name in education circles, in a recent Forefront Austin article entitled “One Size Does Not Fit All: Differentiation in the 21st Century.” He was reiterating what the GIS in Education community leaders have been saying for years. This principle is well-illustrated with a short video called “Above and Beyond,” created by The Partnership for 21st Century Skills and FableVision. The video tells the story of a school contest and what can happen when talent, creativity and raw materials intersect to create something above and beyond expectations. It also illustrates Renzulli’s statement:

“We’ve got to take into account three other crucial elements: the interests of young people, learning styles and the way in which young people express themselves. Then we have to teach subject matter to kids in ways that intersect with those interests and styles. When we can do that, we’ve piqued their interests, we’ve offered opportunities to interact with the material and they’ve now integrated the subject and the process into their understanding. It’s this personalized learning experience that will give kids the knowledge AND the skills to dive into newer, more complex issues.” 

How often does this happen? Given the same “GIS Kit” with precise instructions, it still takes creativity, analysis, critical thinking and teamwork to build something amazing. When we work together and allow GIS and geography education to partner with core content, we’re impacting students and changing the education landscape.

What are the best tools for GIS in Education?

Online mapping tools provide easy access to the power of data and maps to achieve a little magic: the problem solving, critical thinking and practice that students need. According to Esri education manager, Charlie Fitzpatrick, “One of the challenges in geography, STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] and geospatial technology is helping people be inquisitive, exploratory and analytical. Many situations and problems demand unique, iterative explorations and the ability to analyze data. Life is not a single-threaded linear existence. Educators need to model exploration and analysis, and then give students more and more opportunities to the do same.” Dr. Joseph Kerski, 2011 president of NCGE, sees the challenge as “helping the students and teachers ASK the geographic questions in the first place. Students are so ingrained with ANSWERING questions rather than asking them that over time, I think, it leads to a decrease in curiosity about the world…a sad state of affairs.” But, without a few challenges in any field, wouldn’t we all be bored? Geography empowered with GIS changes how students interact with their studies.

What is NCGE doing to enhance geography education?

The National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE) continues to work toward enhancing the status and quality of geography teaching and learning among K-12 (formal and informal), community college and university educators. NCGE is focused on offering programs and publications that enhance all things related to geographic education while helping teachers understand why and how to think about spatial phenomena analytically using GIS, building technology skills along with analytical experience and content background. NCGE is tackling the challenges facing geography and geospatial technology with a multi-pronged approach.

Webinars: One way NCGE is addressing this issue is through our webinar program. It offers a wide spectrum of 20 or more sessions per season on topics ranging from best tips and tricks for new teachers from veteran educators, to a collegial atmosphere for experienced instructors and professors to hone their skills in all geography education related topics.

GIS Map Contest and Gallery: NCGE hosts an annual Student Map Contest and Gallery which awards K-12 and college students for outstanding analysis and cartography. The excellent work these high school students are doing will impress any GIS professional. All the maps are printed and displayed at the annual conference.

Publications: NCGE is creating new publications such as A Geographic View of World History by Herb Thompson, which give teachers the resources to create meaningful experiences for students, authored by real educators and tested by real students. Other new publications will enhance spatial learning as well teach AP Human Geography.

Conference Labs: At the Annual Conference on Geographic Education, attendees have access to free computer labs and workshops that address a myriad of issues related to geospatial technologies in addition to the many great workshops and regular presentations.

Partnerships: NCGE is involved with standards projects, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), STEM initiatives, Esri, National Geographic, 4-H, the National Council for Social Studies and others to advance geographic inquiry and geospatial technologies in formal and informal education

What can you do?

Get involved! The old adage, “it takes a village,” is not only applicable but necessary in geography and throughout education. When we band together positively for a cause, we can impact our future. Support geography education by Speaking up for Geography. Let Congress and the lawmakers know you care about what our children learn. Support geography education in your community. Help your child’s teacher or a school near you. Volunteer, go exploring and geocaching, present on GIS Day, share lessons or share data and maps. Educators need the support of professionals to make GIS integration easier. Become a GeoMentor. Finding and helping an educator through this program is simple. Share cool geography things via your social networks. NCGE on Twitter (@ncge1915) and Facebook are great resources. There is always something to tweet about in geography and GIS! Stay aware of what’s happening with GIS in your area.