Fun with GIS 313: School and the Geographic Approach

09-26-2022 07:34 AM
Esri Regular Contributor
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As a kid growing up in the country, with good eyesight and guidance from family, I was good at spotting and identifying birds and animals at a distance, based on habitat, shape, and behavior. But I had a terrible time coping with a human landscape, particularly cities. It was very hard for me to translate between what I saw in the typical small-scale 2D map and my real-life human-scale side-view of the 3D physical world. Overhead views of a topographic map or even a road map taunted me like so many treasure maps. In college, I studied geography because it helped me s-l-o-w-l-y to find and grasp the patterns and relationships of what was to me a cloaked world. I  struggled with large-scale (local) geography, even while teaching, until the arrival of maps on computers. Hours of studying shapes and locations -- features with attributes -- built recognition of patterns and relationships. The subsequent merging of GIS (with its infinite capacity to vary visible content) and GPS (with its ability to show current and past location, and thus both personal direction and compass direction, yielding context) was to me like opening the door to the biggest library imaginable.
The simple sign above my classroom blackboard said “Geography is three questions: What’s where? Why is it there? So what?” The first question seeks both “the where” and “the what” — the infinite catalogue of locations and their characteristics — and shows that things vary between here and there, and between time1 and time2. The second question seeks the factors — large and small — that shape these variations. The third question seeks the impact of the first two.


This is the geographic approach. It is a way of thinking about and seeing the world, using the science of geography to sift through infinite data to illuminate the patterns and relationships relevant to a topic or question. Doing this with GIS just turbocharges the process, especially for kids.


Some people are gifted cataloguers and interpreters of the world, able to consume and integrate torrents of inputs. But even they need the ability to track an infinite array of questions, to find or generate specific content, to analyze data with different ways to extract different results, to isolate the treatments that bring out the most important findings, and to present these in a manner that most clearly and transparently builds understanding.


What years of experiencing, studying, and then teaching geography did was help me overcome a disability to see, grasp, and interact positively with patterns and relationships in the world. Geospatial technologies multiplied those capacities infinitely. Today, across the world, at scales global to local, businesses, governments, and agencies of all kinds use the geographic approach to learn about the parts of their world that matter most to their mission. GIS helps them seek, discover, and act effectively on these truths, from simple questions like “Where do we find trash?” to “What do we need to do for which communities in view of recent and future disasters?”
Students can learn these tools, skills, and perspectives, even in primary grades (see 3-minute video from grade 3). Those who build their capacities effectively will have a richer present, and a much more impactful future. (See Student Competition results or explore students on stage at Esri User Conferences.)  
About the Author
** Esri Education Mgr, 1992-today ** Esri T3G staff, 2009-present ** Social Studies teacher, grades 7-12, 1977-1992 (St. Paul, MN) ** NCGE Distinguished Teacher Award 1991, George J Miller Award 2016 ** ** ** Only action based on education can save the world.