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A question that is raised frequently on blogs, forums, and listservs is from professionals who are asked to conduct a presentation for a group of students, in a colloquium, after-school program, or in a primary, secondary, or university level classroom. Some school districts and universities have a “visiting scientist program” that matches instructors with outside professionals, while elsewhere it is done more informally upon request. In the GIS field, GIS professionals are often asked to conduct presentations for students, and these requests often peak near GIS Day each November. Given the fact that GIS Day is approaching, I would like to give my philosophy on these presentations, and look forward to hearing your ideas and experiences. Over the course of my career, I have visited over 400 educational institutions to give guest presentations, but the following reflections are by no means “one size fits all”: I am continuously learning as I go.

First, move beyond the phrase “guest lecture” or “presentation.” Particularly in a visual and exciting field such as GIS, approaching it as “lecture” will severely limit your effectiveness. Yes, we have slides on and elsewhere. But you have wonderful GIS tools at your fingertips and complex, fascinating problems that you are grappling with on a daily basis. Therefore, show what you are working on! Bring your computer and a projector, showing your data or data you have made available to the public on the web. Make it as interactive as possible! Ask questions and show how you use GIS to solve problems. Don’t just show a bunch of slides if you really want to engage the students. If you’re in a lab, even better—have the students investigate your maps for themselves. Some students may consider geographic inquiry to be simply asking where something is. Therefore, you might have to provide some foundation about what spatial thinking and spatial analysis in a GIS is all about.

Second, think about the neighborhood and region where you are giving your presentation. What issues such as natural hazards, graffiti, rapid growth, traffic, or water quality are of concern? What makes this neighborhood unique? Think of the landscape, ecoregion, land use, river systems, climate, ethnicity, history, and other characteristics at work. Sometimes, students consider their neighborhood to be the most boring in the world, so help them consider what sets it apart, showing their neighborhood via GIS and another across town or in another city across the country or on another continent.

Use ArcGIS Online to compare earthquakes around the world to plate boundaries and cities. Examine median age by tract and block group and discuss the implications that the median age has on different service industries. Compare land use and ecoregions and ask why agriculture occurs where it does. Go for the unusual by examining this strange imagery collection. Show 10 satellite images of selected places around the world or around your state and have students guess as to where they are, why, and what the area is like. Investigate landforms or features and ask students to tell you what each one of them is, whether sand dunes, wetland, karst, a golf course, school, office building, or hospital. In ArcGIS Online, you can prepare this tour ahead of time or construct it while you are talking with the students.

Third, if you cannot show any of the data that you are working on for privacy reasons or because your data are too large to go mobile, then use GIS tools that work anywhere, such as ArcGIS Online. Display different satellite images taken in different years to compare land use change in the community, as I did when I was teaching in Nairobi last November. Use the “Change Matters” Landsat imagery to examine changes in the Aral Sea or along the Florida coast over the past 30 years. Choose at least one local issue and one global issue and discuss the “whys of where.”

Fourth, get outside on the school grounds with some cameras and GPS receivers, or with smartphones. Hyperlink the resulting photographs and videos to ArcGIS Online, and then help students tell their stories as I did in Amboseli National Park.

Fifth, tell your personal story about how you blazed your career path in GIS, touching on the importance of staying in school and pursuing a well-rounded education including courses in science, geography, mathematics, computers, and language arts.

Sixth, don’t forget to ask them questions as well. You will be inspired and energized! Seventh, leave a poster describing what you do or what GIS is behind. Other ideas abound on the Esri Edcommunity blog and on the GIS Day resource area.

If you can instill some curiosity about their world, and the value and power of real data, maps, and GIS technology, then you will have succeeded.

What presentation will you give to students this year?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

Cartograms, because they distort our normal view of things, are wonderfully rich research and teaching tools. A distance cartogram shows relative travel times and directions within a network. An area cartogram is a map in which some variable is used instead of the land area in each polygon to compute the size of that polygon. Many of us remember using graph paper to make rectangular area cartograms as undergraduates (but perhaps I am dating myself). Today, one can use Web GIS and desktop GIS to create cartograms. For example, nearly 700 variables can be mapped on, and the data can be downloaded as Excel spreadsheets and analyzed within ArcGIS.

To dig deeper and make your own cartograms, with the ability to do bivariate analysis within a GIS environment, use the ArcScript cartogram tool that Tom Gross in the ESRI Applications Prototype Lab created, on: How can a GIS, which focuses on the accurate spatial representations of features, be used to create cartograms? Try this script and find out!

Once you install the cartogram tool, inside ArcMap, access ArcToolbox. Create a toolset, add the cartogram tool, and run it. The intuitive interface allows specifying input and output, and even comes with a nice assortment of international population and other variables to practice on. You can distort the base layers so that your cartogram can include the distorted layers for reference. I did this for cities, a 30-degree world grid, and a satellite image of the Earth to see these reference layers overlaid on my cartogram.

In this example, I chose to map the total CO2 emissions by country in 2004, in millions of metric tons, from the US Energy Information Agency. What patterns do you notice?

The cartogram map layer has to be written into a geodatabase, but otherwise, the tool has few restrictions. I am very pleased cartographically with the results, and the methodology of how the cartograms are generated is well documented.

What other variables and scales could you map and analyze as cartograms?

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