Teaching Sustainability in the 21st Century with GIS: A year-long University-K12-Industry Initiative

05-22-2023 11:09 AM
Esri Notable Contributor
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An innovative partnership between K12 educators, a university, and industry (Esri) resulted in a year-long initiative to foster spatial thinking in teaching climate and sustainability topics through geotechnologies.  I share this story with the community to inspire others to pursue creating and implementing a similar partnership of their own with equally far-reaching impacts. 

As described in the institute's initial announcement, this institute provided a unique professional development opportunity for middle- and high-school educators in Colorado where participants honed skills in geographic inquiries in sustainability using interactive, flexible web-based GIST (Geographic Information Sciences), a key component of STEM education, as a primary teaching tool in the classroom. This full-1-year initiative developed teaching modules on social science topics in relation to environmental and sustainable thinking practices among students while providing opportunities for the educators to participate in a professional networking in GIS-in-education initiative.  We began the institute in June 2022 with a two-day virtual institute, and kept the community vibrant and growing through the subsequent year with a combination of monthly after-school sessions, and an online set of resources and discussion using the Canvas LMS.  Each monthly session included an overriding theme--such as water, energy, urbanization, ethics, and others, as well as a GIS immersion and educators sharing with each other in small group breakouts.

The focus of the institute was on providing meaningful experiences for students--in the field and the classroom, increasing engagement, skills, and knowledge.  Thus, GIS provided data, hands-on immersive activities, and tools for instructors and students, but the goal was not to turn these courses into GIS courses.  

Each of the project directors brought unique experiences from higher education, secondary education, and industry, respectively:  Dr. Jieun lee (Department of Geography, GIS, and Sustainability at UNC, the University of Northern Colorado), Steve Cline (Windsor High School), and myself, Joseph Kerski from Esri.  In addition, we worked closely with Sojung Huh, PhD student from Texas State University on evaluation and assessment methods.  I had a wonderful experience teaching with these colleagues and from the positive reaction of the teacher participants, they too thought the perspectives we each brought combined for a valuable institute.

This institute was designed to help educators: 1. Develop geotechnology skills, including foundational underpinnings, cloud data sources, data formats, communicating with maps, data quality; projections, symbolizing, field data collection, and measurement, focused on climate and sustainability topics.  2. Develop skills in teaching spatial thinking through the use of geotechnologies.  3. Develop career awareness of the applicability of GIS across a variety of disciplines and workplaces. 4. Provide confidence that these educators could use these skills and perspectives to move forward and demonstrate leadership in their own career.

The fruits of the efforts of the teaching team and the educator participants were evident in the capstone weekend, which we have just completed with a two-day face-to-face institute at the University of Northern Colorado campus.  These fine educators gave up their entire weekend for this effort, and we were all thankful to be together for the first time.   The goals of this final weekend were to work through additional technical and pedagogical hands-on investigations, to provide participants with time to work independently on their curricular projects and to present their work to their peers and the teaching team, to provide a wider context through a variety of guest speakers, to provide additional confidence to educators in their use of GIS to teach climate and sustainability topics, and to connect these educators in a network as they move forward in the next steps of their journey.


One of the applications that we used in this institute--the Sentinel-2 land cover explorer, part of the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World apps.

Some of the educators had a background in geography, and I am happy to report that GIS is included in the newly revised geography content standards for Colorado (below).  


However, perhaps even more importantly, the institute once again showcased one of my favorite qualities of GIS and spatial thinking--bridging disciplines and bringing together educators from a variety of subjects--physical science, mathematics, sociology, environmental studies, computer science, and others--into a wonderfully vibrant learning environment.  

The final projects that the educators presented were amazing, with their wide diversity of topics (including distracted driving, urban sprawl, water, wildlife, school district sustainability efforts, and many more).  The educators used a variety of means to present their work, including dashboards, story maps, results from analysis from ArcGIS Online, and field data gathering via ArcGIS Survey123. They built their projects through data they gathered in the field, via spreadsheets, via data they gathered in open data libraries, and data they found in ArcGIS Online and the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World. 

I invite you to use the activities that I created for the final institute in the following story map.  These include investigation in multiple hazards in a region, mapping multiple internet access variables, understanding litter data in an urban area, and analyzing land use change over space and time via Sentinel-2 imagery.


This institute demonstrated (1) the amazing things that can result from the collaboration among a number of organization; (2) the amazing work that dedicated and visionary teachers can accomplish with GIS.  I have full confidence that the hundreds of students impacted by these educators will be the change agents in society as they graduate and move into the workforce.

As with many innovative endeavors that make a positive impact, this is not the end of the story:  1.  We will publish the results and impact of this initiative in an upcoming peer-reviewed article, and 2.  We aim to get together with these educators over the next year, virtually or even face-to-face.  The ripples of geo-energy that this institute began will continue to propagate.  

--Joseph Kerski

About the Author
I believe that spatial thinking can transform education and society through the application of Geographic Information Systems for instruction, research, administration, and policy. I hold 3 degrees in Geography, have served at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and USGS as a cartographer and geographer, and teach a variety of F2F (Face to Face) (including T3G) and online courses. I have authored a variety of books and textbooks about the environment, STEM, GIS, and education. These include "Interpreting Our World", "Essentials of the Environment", "Tribal GIS", "The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data", "International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS In Secondary Education", "Spatial Mathematics" and others. I write for 2 blogs, 2 monthly podcasts, and a variety of journals, and have created over 5,000 videos on the Our Earth YouTube channel. Yet, as time passes, the more I realize my own limitations and that this is a lifelong learning endeavor and thus I actively seek mentors and collaborators.