GIS and geo-literacy

During this wintry weather, I’ve been finding myself looking at a lot of weather and transportation maps to assess my work and travel situation — and it got me thinking about maps in the classroom.  When I was in school, over ten years ago, I got very little exposure and use out of maps, aside from the few classes that did use them regularly. However, this was a different time in education — Google Maps didn’t exist (remember when MapQuest was the primary way to get directions online?) and Google Earth was but a twinkle in someone’s eye. ;)  As an educator, you may find yourself asking:
With all the technology available today, what quality tools are available to advance geo-literacy in your classroom?

Besides common web mapping services like Google Maps, one way to expose your students to geography and other geographical data online is to bring GIS software into the classroom. In fact, the Missouri Geographic Alliance, through the University of Missouri, has signed on to provide all Missouri K-12 schools and educators with access to ESRI’s GIS software called ArcGIS (and I’m confident that other states are doing the same). The first step is to request the software, and ESRI even provides a free online training course to help you get the most out of the software.

Arcgis geocoding service inside Excel... Sweet! #esriuc

Unsure of what GIS is? As described by wikipedia, a Geographical Information System, or GIS, is “a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of geographical data”. In a nutshell, a GIS merges maps and statistical data with database technology, allowing you to view and interpret data in new ways. ESRI provides a good, easy to understand overview here. This type of software and data pairs great with inquiry and project-based learning, adding depth to assignments and simulations with geographical context and real data.

A real example of how GIS can be used in the classroom comes from Barbaree Duke, a middle school teacher in Raleigh, NC.  She had her students use GIS to create a project based on the travels of Mark Twain, using math skills to measure distances using the tools found in ERSI’s software. They then demonstrated social studies and technology skills by using the database to find locations around the world that Twain had visited. How cool is that?! For this lesson and more ideas from Barbaree, check out her GIS in Education blog.

As the above example demonstrated, GIS can be used in many different subject areas, not just social studies and geography, and can be paired with many other online tools, such as blogs, websites, and more. GIS can be used by your students to:

  • visualize historical events
  • explore the social and mathematical characteristics of demographic information
  • study climate change
  • design cities
  • take inventory of geological samples
  • plan ecological growth models
  • catalog archaeological sites
  • map travel logs/journals
  • map the setting/locations of a book
  • explore the locations and spread of diseases/illnesses
  • create travel routes for a delivery business
  • explore natural phenomena, such as volcanos and earthquakes
  • explore the habitats of animals and/or humans

This is a small list of the things you can do with GIS software. What about you? In what ways could you use GIS software to spruce up a new or existing lesson?

For more information on GIS and how to use it in the classroom, Missouri educators can visit http://gis.missouri.org/. All other areas, you can check out the National Geographic Network of Alliances for Geographic Education community and click on your state to get more information.

4ALL: How We See the World

The following crossed my RSS feed via one of my favorite online comics, XKCD.

Image courtesy of XKCD.

Although humorous, the comic’s portrayal of American ignorance is troubling, especially for educators. Sure, the implication is that Americans know a lot about large chunks of the world. However, the comic also demonstrates attitudes that are troubling about those areas in the world that are not as familiar to us. To think, there was a time when we probably couldn’t have picked out Iraq or Afghanistan on a map.

How do we overcome this lack of geographical awareness?

As with any societal ignorance, the solution begins in our schools. Teachers have many tools available that can help them help their students learn about the far reaches of our planet. There’s the virtual reality of Google Earth and the many, many possibilities for this truly amazing tool.

There’s also the many alternative views of the world not found in our text books. Take the Peters Map which tries to represent the size of the continents in a more accurate manner. There are tools for mapping activity on Twitter which can help students see prevailing messages in different parts of the world. Language is closely tied to geography and there are plenty of maps for that sort of information. Or for a more personal touch to world geography, check into an account with ePals for a pen-pal project.

With so many resources available on the web, there are no excuses for not improving our global awareness. Maybe through a concerted effort, we can change comics like the one above.

Zac Early is an instructional specialist for the eMINTS National Center. He updates his blog Suppl_eMINTS from time to time.