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The Cherry Creek School District in Colorado has been using GIS in the curriculum and in administration for many years now. When the STEM coordinators of the district told me that their students were launching weather balloons and recording atmospheric data from them, I jumped at the opportunity to show them how easy and powerful it is to map the data in ArcGIS Online. The data from just one of the many balloons they had launched was stored in a standard spreadsheet and contained latitude and longitude coordinates, and therefore it was straightforward to map it in ArcGIS Online.  I simply added the spreadsheet saved as a CSV file to ArcGIS Online's "My Content" to create a layer file out of it.  This particular balloon, launched on 1 May 2015, flew over 56 miles (100 km) in 3 hours and 6 minutes, reaching a maximum altitude of 30.7 km, recording a minimum temperature of -59.3 C,  and achieving a maximum speed of 114 km/hour. I mapped the balloon based on its height on a satellite image base, which you can examine in ArcGIS Online by clicking here or on the map below. 


Cherry Creek School District Balloon Map in 2D


Since balloons fly in 3D space, a natural next step was to map the data as a 3D Web Scene.  Until recently, you needed to use ArcGIS Pro to extrude the balloon points to cylinders, but with the announcement that the 3D Scene viewer includes 3D symbols, you can render the symbols in the Viewer itself.  You can examine the data in the interactive 3D Scene viewer here or by clicking on the image below.


Cherry Creek School District Balloon Data in 3D

What excites me not only is the ability of these tools to quickly map the data that the students are collecting, but the power that they offer in terms of helping students understand the relationships among all of these variables. The variables in this case included altitude, speed, heading, and temperature, but other data that the students have collected include atmospheric quality characteristics.  Visualizing and analyzing in these 2D and 3D tools allows students to uncover the relationships between these variables, and why they vary the way they do.  In so doing, GIS provides a fundamental component of the district’s STEM goals, perspectives, content knowledge, and skills. Another thing about this project that excites me is that Grade 5 students are the ones engaged in this project.  Yes, they are only 11 years old, collecting and analyzing data! 


Think about the kinds of data that you and your students work with. It may not be weather balloon data, but say you have another data set that you occurs over space and time that you are interested in mapping and analyzing. How could you use ArcGIS Online and the 3D scene viewer using the procedures described here to map and understand your data?

--by Diana Stuart Sinton, PhD


Belize is a small country, about the size of Massachusetts. But its GIS activity is large, thanks in part to their energetic and enthusiastic Esri distributor, Loretta Palacios. For several years, the company that Ms. Palacio runs, TBSL Inc., has organized and hosted both a country-wide GIS Conference as well as a large Expo on GIS Day. In November 2016, over 900 students from across Belize attended the GIS Day activities, to learn about the role of GIS in their education and to interact with organizations from the private and public sectors, who were demonstrating diverse GIS applications.


Figure 1. Students from dozens of Belizean schools experience GIS at GIS Day 2016

Figure 1. Students from dozens of Belizean schools experience GIS at GIS Day 2016


Figure 2. Multiple stations set up around the room offered students that chance to see how GIS helps people understand problems that are both local and global.

Figure 2. Multiple stations set up around the room offered students that chance to see how GIS helps people understand problems that are both local and global.


TBSL took it one step further in 2016 by coordinating with Esri to bring an Esri Educational Ambassador to visit. Diana Sinton, of UCGIS and Cornell University, is well-known for her commitment to the role that GIS&T can play in teaching and learning. While she was in Belize, she delivered two workshops for teachers and teacher educators to demonstrate how GIS can be incorporated into Belize’s education curricula.  They began with a simple hands-on activity for a site suitability task, using plastic sheets that represented data layers, to explain the notion of overlay and demonstrate how the features of the natural and social world are represented through a GIS. The participants then used ArcGIS Online activities, such as ones from the GeoInquiries collection, to explore how student audiences could learn through digital mapping. Additionally, several exercises were modified to include Belizean data sets and local contexts. TBSL produced a video about the workshops that can be viewed online.

 Figure 3. Teachers used both analog and digital tools to learn about GIS.

Figure 3. Teachers used both analog and digital tools to learn about GIS.

The workshop participants appreciated having greater awareness of the available resources and were inspired to see how their learning objectives and standards could be linked with and supported by these mapping activities. One particularly exciting ideas was to imagine how GIS content could be developed to target needs of broad sectors of students. For example, students from many Caribbean countries must take a qualifying exam (similar to the SATs) to be considered for entrance to a regional university. The teachers appreciated how GIS could be used – by a teacher and by the students – to practice and reinforce the relevant curricular content in preparation for that exam.

Educators in countries such as Belize are increasingly aware of the opportunities that GIS presents as a tool for teaching and learning. They are also realistic about the challenges that accompany integration of the technologies, such as inconsistent and unreliable internet access and shortfalls in access to computers themselves. Significant amounts of inequality exist across the schools, towns and cities, and students’ households. Teachers expressed concerns about developing data or exercises that some of their students couldn’t access or complete. But they also know that such situations are likely to improve over time and their students are eager to learn, now and later.

I wrote an essay and created a video connecting GIS, environmental education, and environmental science with a goal that these resources would be useful not just on Earth Day, but far beyond.  In the essay, I explore 10 linkages.  The essay and video could be used with students, in a professional development workshop for educators, or with administrators at the primary, secondary, or university levels.  The essay and video begin with the tenet that every environmental issue has a geographic component, and hence can be effectively analyzed using GIS and spatial thinking.  The resources go on to say that not only are environmental studies enhanced by GIS, but conversely, the use of GIS is enhanced by a firm grounding in environmental studies. One of environmental studies’ central themes is examining the interaction between humans and the environment, which can be examined effectively using GIS--urbanization, biodiversity loss, coastal erosion, energy production, access to water, human health, and a host of other issues.  Studying environmental issues with GIS lends relevancy and real-world contexts to these issues, from local to global scales. Teaching about sustainable practices in agriculture, urban development, ecotourism, energy, or any other field using GIS requires a grounding in core concepts in ecology and geography.   Students who use GIS in tandem with environmental studies develop key critical thinking skills. Students immersed in environmental studies at all levels of education can apply geotechnologies to understand environmental issues.


Students who are well grounded in the spatial perspective through GIS are better able to, upon graduation, use data at a variety of scales, in a variety of contexts, think systematically and holistically, use quantitative and qualitative approaches to solve problems. In short, these graduates are better decision makers.  GIS through environmental studies adheres to the tenet that learning is often most effective when it takes place outdoors. Fieldwork has such a long and rich history within environmental studies that it is almost like stating the obvious. However, in a world where outdoor education is often cut due to budgetary constraints, and when a frighteningly large proportion of the population has almost no connection with the outdoors, it bears emphasizing.  Esri offers a variety of tools that students can use to collect and analyze field based data, including those mentioned here.  Given the widespread environmental concerns faced by the modern world, it is imperative that students study and understand about these issues not only to equip them for life in the 21st Century, but to ensure that we emerge at the end of the 21st Century in a sustainable way.  The document includes a resources section that details the maps, tools, web mapping applications, lessons, and other resources that can be effectively used in environmental education. 

Collage showing maps, images, and fieldwork with GIS.

A new landing page now exists for apps that allow for the exploration of Landsat remotely sensed data that your students could use to examine geology, urban growth, water and water quality, and more, called "Unlock Earth's Secrets:"


This page includes a description of the Landsat on AWS app that that was improved last year:


This web application highlights some of the capabilities for accessing Landsat imagery layers, powered by ArcGIS for Server, accessing Landsat Public Datasets running on the Amazon Web Services Cloud. The layers are updated with new Landsat images on a daily basis. Quick access to the following band combinations and indices is provided:

  • Agriculture: Highlights agriculture in bright green. Bands 6,5,2
  • Natural Color: Sharpened with 15m panchromatic band. Bands 4,3,2+8
  • Color Infrared: Healthy vegetation is bright red. Bands 5,4,3
  • SWIR (Short Wave Infrared): Highlights rock formations. Bands 7,6,4
  • Geology: Highlights geologic features. Bands 7,4,2
  • Bathymetric: Highlights underwater features. Bands 4,3,1
  • Panchromatic: Panchromatic image at 15m. Band 8
  • Vegetation Index: Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI). (Band5-Band4)/(Band5+Band4)
  • Moisture Index: Normalized Difference Moisture Index (NDMI). (Band5-Band6)/(Band5+Band6)

The Time tool enables access to a temporal time slider and a temporal profile of different indices for a selected point. The Time tool is only accessible at larger zoom scales. It provides temporal profiles for NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index), NDMI (Normalized Difference Moisture Index) and an Urban Index. The Identify tool enables access to information on the images, and can also provide a spectral profile for a selected point. The Bookmark tool will direct you to pre-selected interesting locations.  This is an extremely helpful and easy-to-use tool for education and research, and runs in a web browser!

 Landsat on AWS Amazon Web Services app showing moisture index near the Salton Sea

Landsat AWS Amazon Web Services app showing moisture index near the Salton Sea in California.


I reviewed the above app on the Spatial Reserves data blog:


The new landing page also includes a new app called Landsat Explorer :


This app allows you to change the colors by which the images are rendered.  It also allows you to pick dates and compare imagery across time, swipe to compare two dates, set up masks to cover or highlight, compute the change between two dates, identify a scene or point, and see sample stories from around the world using the same imagery.  One of the most powerful features, though, is its connections to ArcGIS Online.  It has the ability to save the top layer to ArcGIS Online, and also add data from ArcGIS Online. 


Landsat Explorer comparing two image dates.


Landsat Explorer App showing images from two different dates near Bakersfield, California.

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