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ArcGIS Earth, which arrived earlier this year, is a free, powerful tool to visualize the Earth in 3D.  ArcGIS Earth runs via a program that you install on your computer (at the present time, Windows-only) and streams spatial data over the web.  You can add data that you or your students create, or data that local, regional, national, and international organizations have created on a wide variety of themes.  These themes include natural hazards, demographics, hydrography, ecoregions, energy, health, and much more.  Indeed, because ArcGIS Earth can access data in the ArcGIS Online cloud, the number of layers available are vast, and expanding daily.  Educators and students can also visualize data collected and stored on their own computers.  Let’s explore five activities that you can quickly and easily use in the classroom, at a wide variety of educational levels and disciplines.

1.  Study your community or region, or others around the world, using satellite imagery.  Not long ago, my colleague in geography gave me a tour of Yangmingshan National Park in Taiwan, which contains sulfur deposits, fumaroles, venomous snakes, and at least 20 volcanoes.  I can use ArcGIS Earth to teach about the physical geography of the park (shown in part, below).

Yangmingshan National Volcanoes Park, Taiwan in ArcGIS Earth.

Yangmingshan National Volcanoes Park, Taiwan in ArcGIS Earth.

2.  Teach about watersheds.  In the example below, I added the World Hydro Reference overlay to ArcGIS Earth, changed the base map to a topographic base map, and highlighted the boundary of a watershed in western Colorado.  Using this technique, you can teach students the relationship between watersheds, river drainage, and topography.

Examining watersheds in ArcGIS Earth.

Examining watersheds in ArcGIS Earth.

3.  Investigate population density and world demographics.  In the example below, I added the world population density layer.  I can then add demographic data by country, location of major world cities, and other map layers to teach about world settlement patterns and why these patterns are important.

Population density visualized in ArcGIS Earth.

Population density visualized in ArcGIS Earth.

4.   Teach about the shape and size of the Earth.  Using the measurement tool in the example below, you can teach about Great Circle routes and much more about distances and the physical geography of the Earth.

Showing measurement and the Great Circle route in ArcGIS Earth.

Showing measurement and the Great Circle route in ArcGIS Earth.

5.  Study real-time data.  In the example below, I am using the oceans base map and earthquakes from the last 90 days to study the relationship between tectonic activity and the ocean trench northeast of New Zealand.

Earthquakes northeast of New Zealand visualized in ArcGIS Earth.

Earthquakes northeast of New Zealand visualized in ArcGIS Earth.

Much more can be done, but I hope that these examples help you think about how you might use ArcGIS Earth in your own instruction or research.

Dr Damian Gessler of Semantic Options recently gave a keynote address in which he stated, “transformational change is enabled as past technologies simplify.”  Immediately, I thought of the many presentations and papers where a few of my colleagues and I have applied Everett Rogers’ diffusion of innovations theory to GIS in education. Rogers theory focuses on how innovations are adopted, at first by innovators and then by early adopters.  Rogers says that for real change to occur with any technology, the early majority of users, representing one standard deviation below the mean, will need to adopt the technology.  Some of us are arguing that with the advent of web based GIS and the resulting lowering of technological and learning barriers, we are beginning to see an “early majority” of educators using GIS in their instruction.

Gessler’s point perfectly applies to the use of GIS in education:  First, GIS has 50-year roots, so while one can argue that it is changing more rapidly now than ever before, it qualifies as a “past technology” as identified by Gessler.  Its methods and models have been tested, vetted, and refined.  Second, it has simplified in many ways–through the advent of the graphical user interface around 2000, web based services through the Geography Network of the early 2000s and on through the modern ArcGIS Online platform, and its ability to incorporate real-time data, multimedia (via story maps and other mapping applications), and field data through crowdsourcing and other methods.  As it has become easier to use, it has simultaneously become more powerful.

These two simultaneous trends are attracting people in a widening diversity of disciplines to the use of GIS.  As they do, decisions are increasingly made using the geographic perspective, and transformational change is enabled, to put it in Dr Gessler’s words.  In the classroom at the primary, secondary, and university levels in formal and in informal settings, the use of the technologies and methods are beginning to effect transformational change in how skills, content knowledge, and perspectives are taught and learned.

Do you agree that we are seeing a transformational change with regard to the use of GIS in education?  What do you recommend that we as the community need to do in order to further encourage and hasten these developments?