"It's the work of freedom." These words by history teacher Mariana Ramirez near the end of the education section of the 2018 Esri User Conference plenary summarize the power of teachers helping students investigate their world. The Math, Science, & Technology Magnet Academy at Roosevelt High School, in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, presented their work on Esri's stage in 2013, and two teachers (Ramirez and English teacher Alice Im) were brought back in 2018 to receive the "Making a Difference" award, because the work their students do is such a powerful model.
Theirs is not a "simple research project" that could be replicated immediately in any given week, or even a month. Teaching under-privileged youth in an inner city public high school sometimes involves helping students facing serious personal responsibilities and family distress, working with English language learners, overcoming difficulties in reading and math, wrestling with layers of "administrivia," coping with inadequate resources, all while covering classroom content. How then does one help students build substantial background knowledge and long-term life skills?
Amid exploding reams of data, often conflicting or unbalanced sources, and shifting and confusing scales of attention and value, what matters is not accumulation of facts but ability to learn -- to ask good questions, handle varied inputs, derive substantive meaning, think critically, make good decisions, and act, singly and in concert with others. Teaching these skills takes all the time, energy, empathy, attention to detail, coaching skill, content expertise, pedagogical experience, planning and adaptability, capacity to tolerate risk and withstand failure, and multi-tasking that a teacher can muster, for dozens of students at a time, typically over 100 on any given day. The best teachers know that education is a process of engagement, not simply delivery. They teach people, not content, and so tweak their interactions scores of times per minute, at once speaking, listening, looking, feeling, cataloguing, digesting, planning, and reacting … explaining here, asking there, cajoling one, praising another … all while helping to erect the scaffolds of knowledge and skill, and the trust with which students frame their view of the world.
Because of its capacity for incorporating limitless types, amounts, and scales of data, GIS is a powerful tool for learning. The MSTMA teachers help students build their skills, then turn the focus to the world they know, asking them to dig deep, seek the data, analyze it, and present their conclusions. It takes time to build the requisite skills, conduct the research, and present to their peers, their teachers, their community, and the broader outside world. But the students recognize the rewards, inside and out, often very quickly, occasionally only over time.
"One person can make a difference … and everybody should try," says Esri president Jack Dangermond at the close, echoing the words of President John F. Kennedy. Anyone in doubt, or anyone simply seeking affirmation, need only watch the video, and then share it. "It's the work of freedom."