Why GIS in Education Matters

Why GIS in Education Matters


gis in educationPeople have always been fascinated with investigating their home—the Earth. To understand our planet, scholars in the ancient world in Rome, Greece, India, China, and elsewhere laid the foundations for geography and geodesy over 2,500 years ago.  Today, the geographic perspective is more relevant than ever before, as issues of climate change, economic globalization, urban sprawl, biodiversity loss, sustainable agriculture, water quality and quantity, crime, cultural diversity, energy, tourism, political instability, and natural hazards grow in importance on a global scale but also increasingly affect our everyday lives.  To grapple with these issues requires a populace that has a firm foundation in geography, who can see the “big picture” but also who understands how different patterns and trends are related from a global scale down to the local community.  The geographic perspective is concerned with all of the relevant issues of our time, because all of these issues have a geographic component.

Why Maps? For centuries, maps have stirred imaginations and inspired explorations of the unknown.  Today, maps are used to help understand relationships across areas and regions.  These spatial relationships are analyzed using maps in digital form within a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) framework.  In this framework, these maps are dynamic; they can be grappled with and combined with other maps and information, charts, stories, and multimedia.  GIS, together with Remote Sensing and Global Positioning Systems (GPS), make up the geotechnologies, which help people make everyday decisions and plans more effectively and efficiently.

Why GIS in Education?  GIS offers a powerful decision-making toolkit that can be used in educational administration, educational policy, and in instruction.  GIS offers administrators a way to visualize and manage everything from monitoring campus safety, mapping campus buildings, cable, and other infrastructure, routing school buses, planning where and when to close schools and open new ones, and strategizing recruitment efforts.  GIS provides educational policymakers with tools to see patterns in educational achievement and where to target new programs.  In instruction, GIS in the hands of students helps them to understand content in a variety of disciplines, not only in geography, but in history, mathematics, language arts, environmental studies, chemistry, biology, civics, and many more.  GIS is used as an inquiry-driven, problem-solving, standards-based set of tasks that incorporates fieldwork and provides career pathways that are increasingly in demand.  It helps students think critically, use real data, and connects them to their own community.  It does so in informal, primary, secondary, and university settings and appeals to today’s visual learners.  Geotechnologies, along with biotechnologies and nanotechnologies, are the three key skills and job markets identified by the US Department of Labor for the 21st Century (Gewin 2004).

Asking Geographic Questions.  What is the relationship between birth rate and life expectancy?  Why does this relationship exist?  How does acid mine drainage in a mountain range affect water quality downstream?  How do the Himalayas affect the India monsoons?  How will climate change affect global food production?  With GIS, students explore the relationships between people, climate, land use, vegetation, river systems, aquifers, landforms, soils, natural hazards, and much more.  With the flood of information available to students today, they need to be able to deal with uncertainty about data, to understand its limitations with regards to error and omissions, and to effectively manage it.  GIS is a tool that provides holistic computer and management skills for students, increasingly recognized as a key part of national educational curricula as well as the geospatial technology competency model recognized by the US Department of Labor (2010) that includes computer, personal, and organizational competencies.

GIS:  Providing Content, Skills, Perspectives.  Using GIS provides a way of exploring a body of content knowledge and provides a way of thinking about the world (Bednarz 2004; Kerski 2008), identified as essential to primary and secondary education (National Academy of Sciences, 2006).  The geographic perspective informs other disciplines.  When epidemiologists study the spread of diseases, scientists study climate change, or businesspersons determine where to locate a new retail establishment, they use spatial analysis:  GIS provides critical tools for solving very real problems on a daily basis.

GIS in instruction incorporates fieldwork, needed for understanding and appreciating our world (Louv 2006).  Students can gather locations with GPS or smartphone apps such as Survey123 along with information about tree species, historical buildings, water quality, or other variables on a field trip or on their own school or university campus.  The data can be gathered in citizen science mode by all students simultaneously populating a single online web map.

gis in educationProgress in adoption of GIS in education:  The advent of web-based GIS, the open data movement and data services, educational standards that focus on inquiry and problem-based learning, a library of ready-to-use lessons, professional development training for educators, and improved computer access has helped hasten the adoption of GIS by schools in many countries around the world, including Australia, Japan, India, China, Turkey, Lithuania, Colombia, and elsewhere.  At the university level, web-based geospatial technology has increased the demand for and the offering of courses and programs that focus on web GIS coding.  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other e-learning formats have increased the number of people who are knowledgeable about geospatial technologies around the world and is helping to modernize GIS programs in universities and technical colleges.  As the number of fields in which GIS is used continues to expand, GIS is becoming increasingly embedded in university health programs (under such titles as Health Informatics), business programs (as Location Analytics), and in emerging Data Science programs.

The Whys of Where.  GIS-based questions begin with the “whys of where”—why are cities, ecoregions, and earthquakes located where they are, and how are they affected by their proximity to nearby things and by invisible global interconnections and networks?  After asking geographic questions, students acquire geographic resources and collect data.  They analyze geographic data and discover relationships across time and space.  They create web mapping applications such as story maps that they share and use in presentations.  They closely examine and evaluate data sources, particularly important in the modern era when data is plentiful and easy to incorporate into one’s analysis (Kerski 2015).  Thus, the use of GIS is not simply about using technology and becoming proficient in using GIS tools—but rather, fosters a whole range of communication, data, media fluency, and critical thinking skills.

Geographic investigations are often value-laden and involve critical thinking skills.  Students investigate the relationship between altitude, latitude, climate, and cotton production.  After discovering that cotton is grown in regions that must be irrigated, they can ask “Is this the best use of water and other natural resources?”  GIS helps students to act on their investigations, to put their recommendations in place, to improve the quality of lives of people and the health of the planet.  Students present the results of their investigations using GIS and multimedia.  Their investigations usually spark additional questions, and the resulting cycle is the essence of geographic inquiry.

Earth Changes and GIS.  Our world is constantly changing.  These changes are brought about by physical forces such as erupting volcanoes, meandering rivers, and shifting plates, and are brought about by human forces, such as groundwater withdrawl and urbanization.    Students use GIS to understand that the Earth is changing, think scientifically and analytically about why it is changing, and dig deeper:  Should the Earth be changing in these ways?  Is there anything that I should be doing or could be doing about it?  This captures the heart of spatial thinking, inquiry and problem-based learning.  It empowers students as they become decision-makers to make a difference in this changing world of ours.