Home Articles The History and Application of GIS in K-12 Education

The History and Application of GIS in K-12 Education

Thomas R. Baker
Thomas R. Baker
702B Pearson Hall, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045 USA
Email: [email protected]

K-12 Science Education
If one were to generalize about the basic instructional model of traditional public education, it could best be summarized as a factory-style model where children are turned out much like a factory product of the 1920’s (Callahan, 244). The ideas of a teacher as the principal source and disseminator of knowledge and students as passive receptors of information with eager young minds fully attending are relics of a by-gone past. Today, with the rate at which knowledge advances, the power of telecommunications, and ubiquitous nature of computers (not to forget low cost and ease of use), we have found traditional instruction more inefficient and ineffective than ever before.

Since the publication of the National Science Education Standards (NSES) of 1996, K-12 science educators nationwide have been progressing gradually toward a model of instruction that emphasizes a hands-on, research based learning experience in the classroom, typically referred to as Inquiry. As a method of instruction, inquiry draws upon an epistemological learning theory referred to as Constructivism. In it’s most reduced form, Constructivism is interpreted in the field of education as a class of learning methods, where students construct their own knowledge, with the aid of a teacher-mentor and resource rich environment. Inquiry has evolved as a predecessor of Constructivism, yet inquiry is more representative of a scientific or naturalistic research process. When emphasizing the inquiry approach to teaching and learning, students are responsible for forming a research question, gathering background data, establishing a protocol or methodology for answering the question, analyzing the results of data collected, and finally drawing conclusions based upon those experiments (Hassard, 210).

For such an elaborate procedure to occur, teachers must be comfortable with science and scientific investigations, pedagogical strategies for maintaining the focus of a class that might otherwise drift in this unorthodox environment, knowledge of the latest technologies to support the research investigation and its analysis (Jarrett, 1997). This method of teaching is not commonplace, in fact it is a rarity, and a teacher who can fully orchestrate these processes is even more rare. As such, it is understandable that a pedagogical shift is demanded unlike any ever before proposed in science education. To facilitate this new way of teaching and learning, technology has been called upon in many ways. The tools of technology needed range from Internet access in the classroom (at only 44% in 1998), to the use of desktop and multimedia applications (By the numbers, 1998, 102). With Internet access in classrooms, collaborative research projects are possible, where multiple classrooms and teachers work together to solve a research questions. Such methods could be particularly effective for new or inexperienced teachers, allowing for a safe transition into an exciting curriculum.

Some Internet-based collaborative projects vary in their overt use of the methods of Inquiry. Projects like the Monarch Watch (https://www.monarchwatch.org) and Project Feeder Watch ) employ many of the initial stages of inquiry, but seldom advance into data analysis and summative conclusions, areas where critical thinking and problem solving are taxed most heavily. However, it is often these4 online collaborative environments that could reap the greatest benefits from data analysis tools, particularly tools that concentrate on the spatial relationships of the data collected (for example, Monarch release and recovery). Indeed, there are some Online

Collaboratives, such as KanCRN (https://www.kancrn.org ), which are beginning to place elements of data analysis online, using Internet-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Geographic Information Systems
A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a tool for spatial (having a location component) data analysis. This tool allows for the collection, storage, analysis or manipulation, and display of such data (Slocum, 8). The typical display of a GIS is a map-based image where layers represent distinct components or types of information. These layers can be added in any sequence the user prefers, and based upon the data available to the user, analyses or visualizations can be preformed on that data. In traditional cartography, or map-making, the presentation of static maps is possible. However, it is the ability of a user to interact with maps or the “private activity in which unknowns are revealed in a highly interactive environment” that lead to the term, visualization (MacEachen in Slocum, 11). It is these visualizations that possess the greatest benefit to science teachers and students in their pursuit of data analysis, particularly data related to environmental research.

Many of the roots of GIS can be seen from the pursuits of the Harvard Laboratory for Computing Graphics. The Harvard Lab was a Ford foundation project, established in 1966 by Howard Fisher, who was an industrial architect and had set out to create an automated mapping program. Essentially, Fisher wanted to create maps using typewriter symbols that could print overstrikes creating a variety of shading effects. Unfortunately, few cartographers appreciated the aesthetics of the output of the Harvard Lab application, called SYMAP. It was never readily adopted, however it was this early attempt at automated mapping that began to chart the path of computing technologies in cartography and mapping. As a new application, GRID was developed from the Harvard Lab efforts; from GRID sprang a number of our modern GIS computer applications, such as ESRI’s ArcInfo and ERDAS’s Imagine. Each of these companies now stands as a leader in the field of Geographic Information Systems (Slocum, 16; Clarke, 7-10).

With the advent of the Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) and increased speed and memory (all with decreased cost), widespread support and adoption of GIS for problem solving and spatial analysis occurred. fact, the user interface of GIS software has improved greatly, allowing for even the most timid users to try their hand at spatial analysis. Today, we commonly see Geographic Information Systems used in a variety of fields and activities. In a single issue of ArcNews, we can readily find examples of GIS in: redistributing state owned lands, law enforcement, utility companies, environmental resource mapping, emergency response routing, public transportation, pipeline industries, and many other fields (Fall 1997).

GIS and Education

Geographic Information Systems and public K-12 education first experienced a taste of unity in 1992 with the publication of a paramount article by Robert Tinker, now of the Concord Consortium. Tinker’s work exposed the possibilities of representing data6 with digital maps in many curricula. He described the power, flexibility and intrigue that maps offered to 4 th , 5th, and 6 th grade students studying various aspects of the environment as a part of the KidNet Project. Tinker also describes the significance of kids “Ground truthing” data, whereby students, using a map, verify the attribute data of a map or satellite image. He suggested that these data confirmations make the processes of ground truthing and mapping “alive and immediate, providing motivation… for mastering experimental techniques, and for pursuing detailed investigations of interactions”. Furthermore, Tinker noted “GIS software provides a critical link between the immediate and personal level of field observation and global effects and concerns” (Tinker, 42).

Trials and tribulations of GIS in K-12 Education
In their 1996 study of GIS and K-12 learning, Audet and Abegg corroborated many of Tinker’s comments. They offer a few observations key to learning GIS in the classroom, including the ability for teachers to differentiate and hierarchically categorize problem-solving styles of students. They also documented the significant role that GIS terminology and concepts play in the acquisition of GIS skills. They continued by adding “GIS supports problem-solving, but is difficult to predict [consistent achievement]”. These findings and others seem to suggest that GIS is, at the proper developmental level, an effective tool for the instruction of students for data analysis.

Many other distinct advantages of GIS technology exist for K-12 students. Spatial literacy and geographic competence, defined as the ability to recognize the location or topology of map points and attributes, are two such advantages. Interpersonal skill development fostered through cooperative grouping and an enhanced “sense of existence of the wider world” often follows from the proper implementation of GIS instruction. Finally, the understanding of scale and resolution seems to be a critically important task for students, most readily nurtured through the use of GIS (Mackaness, 1994).

Standards for Excellence
A leading advocate of GIS in K-12 education has been the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA). In a report to the ESRI User’s Conference of 1998, Palladino, NCGIA’s Education Project Manager, outlined the challenges and benefits of GIS in K-12 classroom. Among the positives he suggests that now there are easier, more cost efficient methods for obtaining GIS software, hardware, and data sets. Among the challenges, Palladino cites an unequal distribution of computing resources among schools, and a lack of pre-service teacher training that includes spatial literacy, non-traditional teaching techniques, and computer skills training (Palladino, 1998; Palladino, 1994). The efforts of the NCGIA are worth noting, as it is one of the few organizations that have attempted to establish and promote a scope and sequence of Geography and GIS Education, with their Core Curriculum materials. Additionally, NCGIA is facilitating the development of the Secondary Education Project (SEP), a curriculum designed to develop and pool instructional materials and disseminate them through teacher workshops (NCGIA SEP, no date). Similar efforts have been undertaken by the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) to create a standardized GIS curriculum. However, this curriculum is actually intended for GIS practitioners (Obermeyer & Onsurd, no date).

The development of any field within academia or industry is typically marked by a surge of professional meetings and conferences. Geographic Information Systems in8 education is no different. In January of 1994, the first annual conference on the pre-college educational applications of Geographic Information Systems was held at the National Geographic Society. Heralded as EdGIS, the conference was a great success and has grown substantially each year with participants from education, the cognitive sciences, geography, GIS, remote sensing, government, and industry. EdGIS has a substantial research component, where the task of GIS education has been subdivided to allow for greater depth of inquiry. These educational subdivisions fit into a simple framework of pedagogical issues, curriculum issues, software issues, and cognitive issues (EDGIS ’96, 1996).

In addition to EDGIS, there are several other formal proceedings relevant to GIS in Education. The First International Conference on GIS Education (GISED ’98), GIS Education: A European Perspective (EUGISES ’98), and the Interoperability for GIScience Education (1998) all indicate a formalization of GIS and its significance to education at both the K-12 and collegiate levels (NCGIA, 1999).

Case Studies
GIS has already penetrated many elements of K-12 education, science education, educational psychology, and educational administration. A few examples of GIS in educational administration will be followed by curricular applications.

At the forefront of examples in educational administration is the Blue Valley School District (Shawnee, Kansas). Blue Valley has created a “School Attendance Area Creation and Analysis Spatial Decision Support System” for tracking students in the district (SEDSS). This system, working in conjunction with the Johnson County Mapping Department, is designed to support the rapidly growing school boundaries, where students are assigned to attend a specific school based upon their geographic9 location within the school district. This system must be able to adapt quickly from year to year, redrawing school bounds as needed (Slagle, 1995; GIS eases school redistricting, 1996).

Similar to the Blue Valley Schools, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) has uses GIS to map attendance boundaries, ward boundaries, and school locations. However, the DCPS’s focus is to gauge building and infrastructure deficiencies and to make suitable recommendations for immediate repair. In 1994, each of the district’s 164 buildings was inspected and GIS was used to analyze the schools in greatest need of repair with the district’s limited financial resources (Kilical & Kilical, 1995).

The curricular advantages of GIS far outweigh the administrative applications. For example, Minnesota students are using satellite collars and GIS to track predatory patterns of a threatened species of wolf (McGarigle, 1999). Through their studies and GIS analysis of data generated by the movements of the tagged wolves, these students are learning about the interrelated nature of the ecosystem.

In Chelsea, Massachusetts students are using the capabilities of GIS to help with emergency planning. Using CAMEO (Computer Aided Management of Emergency Operations), students link to other mapping applications and begin the process of mapping out hazardous materials incidences and storage locations. In this project, students are able to help their community, learn about its government and its ecosystem (McGarigle, 1998).

Like the above stories, examples of GIS penetrating the traditional school curriculum abound. In most of these cases we find science education and elements of10 data analysis not possible without the capabilities of Geographic Information Systems. In Kingston, Ontario students use AutoDesk software to explore the many aspects of physical and biological sciences, including disease transmission and classical mechanics (Williams, 1997). At a summer research program in Ohio, students are using GIS to study watersheds. As a part of their GIS experiences, students learn about the ecology of streams, the dangers of soil erosion, and the ways that GIS can assist in the modeling of environmental variables (Watershed, 1997). In North Carolina, a statewide initiative urges science students to use GIS to explore their own research interests where “scientific visualizations” (the ability to represent science-related phenomena in a GIS) are central to their work (North Carolina, 1998).

The Future
The future of GIS applications in education continues to grow rapidly. With the inclusion of remote sensing, desktop GIS, and Internet-based mapping, students are gaining the opportunities to become fully immersed in the analysis of spatial data. Many schools, grants, and companies are rapidly developing improved applications, with real data and the intention of solving known and unknown scientific problems. Geodesy, like ESRI’s ArcVoyager, is an application where the GIS tool has been streamlined allowing for more immediate access for student use, minimizing the initial learning curve. Geodesy, emphasizing remote sensing and GIS technologies, is built upon ArcView 2.1 and allows for a customized local data set and curriculum-based GUI. The interface of the package is designed for its singular audience of K-12 students, benchmarked against the Geography for Life Standards, a scope and sequence for K-12 geography education (Radke, 1999).

In conclusion, teachers and students using Geographic Information Systems have already began to prove their effectiveness as a powerful motivator for learning and an outstanding tool for data analysis in and out of the science classroom. The barriers to continued proliferation of GIS in K-12 education tie most strongly to teacher training in pedagogy, curriculum, and technical skills. In many respects, the hardware, software, and data sets required for GIS analysis are readily available to schools, while the traditionally complex and rigid interface of GIS software is no longer a problem. Student versions of GIS software, such as Geodesy, ArcVoyger, and internet-based mapping applications, have allowed for relatively quick learning of a powerful data analysis application.

Students and educators have come far in their use of these tools for instruction. It’s our responsibility as the new generation of GIS analysts to ensure that this trend of growth not only continues, but also excels.


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