What are 10 Key Strategies for Teaching GIS?

2 weeks ago
Esri Frequent Contributor
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I recently wrote about 10 GIS skills that if students become confident with, they can do most anything in a GIS environment.  I followed that with an essay describing 10 educational benefits resulting from teaching with GIS.  In this essay, let's examine 10 key strategies for teaching GIS in an effective manner that engages students.  

By "strategies" I mean approaches that are suitable for any GIS course from beginning to advanced.  I also believe these approaches are suitable to the use of GIS as an instructional tool in history, geography, environmental science, criminal justice, data science, business, health, sociology, biology, and in many other courses across higher education.   I have successfully tested these approaches in my own courses and I know many instructors who pursue these approaches with success as well. 

JosephKerski_10-1633446271467.png  1.  Make it anchored to your program goals.  You are not teaching GIS so students will simply become more proficient with a certain set of tools in a certain version of software.  You are fostering critical thinking, data fluency, spatial thinking, communication skills, connection to the community, proficiency in field methods, and so much more.  Yes, GIS skills are important, but maps are a means to an end. "Putting your data on a map" is not the end point, but rather the beginning.  The higher goal is not to make a map, but to understand something better, in a deeper, richer, way, and then to perhaps take action on it. 

GIS in the hands of students builds skills in asking good questions and scientific inquiry, emboldening them to become change agents in society when they focus on issues that they care about.  Carefully examine the goals of the program within which your courses are located:  How can teaching about GIS or teaching with GIS help you achieve those goals?  How can those goals be articulated into course learning objectives?  How can you use and structure readings, videos, discussion, hands-on activities, assessments, and other items (example i... so that students will learn the content, skills, and perspectives that you are seeking?  

JosephKerski_4-1633445996704.png  2.  Make it holistic.   By its very nature, the geographic perspective through GIS fosters the consideration of the lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, atmostphere, and anthrosphere as a complex, interacting "system of systems".   You cannot model or understand the world in all of its complexity in any single lesson or even a single course or program.   People spend their entire careers trying to understand even specific small aspects of the Earth system.  However, you can ensure that your course elements keep students thinking about the "bigger picture".  This includes how decisions in one sphere are never isolated--they cause ripple effects, positive and negative, in the others.  With the themes-as-layers structure of geodatabases, the ability to create multivariate maps, and the ability to visualize themes across 3D scenes and across time periods through swipe and animation tools, you can foster the holistic view even if you have a weekly theme such as "water" or "hazards."  This is possible in part because of the interconnections between natural systems and human-built systems, and GIS can help students understand patterns, relationships, and trends.  Furthermore, by varying the themes that you study, (see point #6 below), students will emerge from your courses with a sense that "everything is spatial" and is interconnected. 
JosephKerski_5-1633446043305.png 3.  Make it focused.  Focus each week or another period of time (two weeks, a month, etc.) on a problem in one sector of society.  There is no sector where you cannot find data or devise real-world problems around:   Crime, energy, water, historic or sacred structures, biodiversity, land use, landforms, climate, weather, urban forms, natural hazards, social, racial, and economic inequalities, land use, agriculture, transportation, utilities, supply chain management, and a host of others.  Focusing sections of courses, and the accompanying readings, videos, discussions, and hands-on activities, builds content knowledge around a specific subject or knowledge domain.  Doing so also, over time, helps students realize that GIS and the spatial perspective are relevant to every 21st Century problem we face. 
Doesn't this focused advice conflict with the previous strategy and advice about considering problems holistically?  No, because in your courses, you can include thought-provoking questions to students in online discussion boards, face to face conversations, and quizzes that "go beyond" the lesson.  For example, in one of my lessons on siting a business using GIS,  I include the question, "If you were really doing this site selection as a consultant for this specific convenience store chain, outside of this course, what other data and themes would you consider?"  In my activity, the students use traffic volume, demographic characteristics, consumer preferences (with fuel, gas, and lottery tickets figuring prominently in convenience stores), and drive times to competitors to determine the ideal location for a convenience store in a metropolitan area.  But this question helps them to consider variables that we did not have time to consider in class, such as zoning, left turns vs. right turns, major centers of employment, commuting patterns, and others. 
I ask similar types of questions after other activities: "If you were really doing this study as a consultant, what variables, themes, and other considerations would you pursue?"   These and similar questions encourage them to think about other aspects of the physical or cultural environment and thus that the world is a complex place with variables that change over space and over time, and that are connected. 

JosephKerski_2-1633445624191.png 4.  Make it multiscale.  Almost all pressing, relevant issues in our world, from natural hazards to health to education, including the UN Sustainable Development Goals, as well as others, are global in nature and foster planet-scale investigation.  But make some of your lessons and activities focused on your own community and region.  Students will have more knowledge about, and, through GIS you can help foster, vested interest in what is occurring in their own area.  Often times, students have never been asked what they care about in their local community, so your course is an opportunity for them to start investigating, and start caring. It could a skateboard park, urban greenway, farmers markets, historical districts, dangerous intersections, or many other issues.  Many of the existing and readily accessible lessons for example in the ArcGIS Learn Library can be modified for your own area, given the rapid expansion of open data portals such as ArcGIS Hub sites.  And if the students are studying remotely, with your prompting, they can transfer this local knowledge to "how is my own community dealing with <floods> <crime> <clogged transportation arterials>?  

JosephKerski_13-1633447460001.png5.  Make it varied and interesting!  My most "cringeworthy" moments come occasionally when people meet me and say, "Oh, Joseph you're in GIS?  I took a GIS course!  It was the most boring thing ever."   I grimace when I hear this, and you are probably doing the same while reading this.  But then I think about those chemistry, statistics, and other courses I took as a secondary and university student that I truly disliked.  Even though the subject matter was at times fascinating, I dreaded the courses and still have bad memories about them.  How can this be?  It could be the approach, text, methods, or instructor.  Despite the plethora of ways people learn nowadays, including your own students, you still have a great deal of influence on their engagement of the topic.  If you are interested in exploring the world through GIS, and you demonstrate this interest, in your own teaching style but also in the activities you include in your course, chances are, most students will be as well. 

By varying the instructional methods you use, including online discussion boards, assessment items including having students present their research results using story maps and other tools, hybrid and face to face meetings, embed the maps in videos or dashboards, use Kahoot and other interactive quiz tools, mixing video and audio, group vs. individual projects, your courses will remain lively and fresh.  And even though your courses are "not just about the tools", asking your students from time to time to check out a new map (such as this hats around the world map) or visualization (such as this periodic table of spatial analysis), or a new GIS tool (such as the blending tools in ArcGIS Online or the Mars 3D viewer), your courses will be anything but boring. 

JosephKerski_11-1633447415934.png6.  Make it relevant.  With local to global issues all around us, this strategy is probably the easiest strategy of all to incorporate.   Selecting a current event and creating a mini-lesson out of it, even for only 15 minutes weekly in class, is a powerful way of stoking interest and to keep any geospatial-related course timely and relevant.  One of the techniques we often modeled in our annual T3G (Teachers Teaching Teachers) GIS institutes was "GeoNews" where a team of 2 would show how to effectively teach a topic currently in the news using GIS.  I remember those in the T3G institutes teaching about tropical storms, train derailments, political instability, wildfires, a new urban greenway, and other topics. 

Certainly, story maps, dashboards, charts, and infographics available with the ArcGIS platform come to mind as suitable tools.  However, examining current wildfire perimeters, streamflow, weather, and current demographics or consumer preferences from the ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World make for discussions and activities that are easily implemented with minimal preparation time.  These Living Atlas layers and maps can be accessed with a click of a mouse or touchpad, making for instant springboards for discussion.  

JosephKerski_9-1633446199565.png  7.  Make it field-based.  GIS is inherently tied to space and place.   Working with maps, satellite imagery, and visualizations can help foster "topophilia", geographer Yi-Fu Tuan's term for the love of place.  In tandem with these data sets and GIS tools, students must be immersed in these spaces, using all 5 of their senses.  Therefore, include activities where students collect, map, and analyze something in the field, whether it is in the physical or cultural environment.  This could be invasive plant species, light poles or other infrastructure, tree species-height-and-condition, or other themes.  Consider including something that changes often, such as noise, pedestrian or vehicle counts, or weather, so that you can easily compare it as you collect in different places and over different times of day or seasons.   Consider collecting the same themes each semester so you can build a long-term database of phenomena. 

Even if your college or university does not have an established field study center, field work just on your own campus is equally valuable.  Some campuses have an arboretum, but if not, anyplace on campus would work.  If your courses are all virtual and nobody is on campus, that's also no problem:  Field work in the students’ own neighborhoods, wherever they happen to be, is quite doable using ArcGIS Field Maps, Survey123, QuickCapture, and other tools such as PictureThisAI or iNaturalist. And if you have international students collecting data, it will be fascinating to compare housing types, plant species, weather, and more, across countries and continents. 

JosephKerski_7-1633446111076.png 8.  Make it multi-level.  One exciting aspect to teaching with modern GIS tools is that they all offer multiple levels of engagement.  For example, using the Wayback imagery web mapping application in swipe mode to compare land cover change is an excellent way to foster analysis of change-over-space-and-time and using web mapping applications.  There is no sign-in required and no analysis tools to run; students are visually comparing the differences across 7 years in urbanization, glacial extent, forest cover, urban extent, coastal erosion, or some other Earth theme in a Level I introductory (but powerful) Level I mode.  But in a Level II mode, students can save the layers covering 1 of those themes and use them in ArcGIS Online with one of the small but powerful spatial analysis tools.  In a Level III mode, students can use some of the image classification tools in ArcGIS Online or ArcGIS Pro to calculate changes on the landscape in 2D or 3D.  This Level I, II, and III (or more) is almost always possible using geotechnological tools.  I encourage you also when designing your courses to keep coming back to Level I, for example, when introducing a new topic.  Just because Level II and III exists does not mean Level I techniques are not compelling and valid.   

JosephKerski_14-1633447486884.png 9.  Make it so students can shine, explore, and grow.  Ask them to reflect upon their learning with questions, even in your quizzes, such as "What is the most valuable thing you learned this week?  What was the most frustrating thing about this week in class?  What is 1 thing that you read about this week that you would like to learn more about?"  Often, students are not accustomed to being asked to reflect on their own learning, so your encouragement will help them become more reflective learners.   For more ideas in this area, see one of my favorite books on this topic, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher by Stephen Brookfield.

Include assignments where students create story maps and other web mapping applications (such as custom tools they build with Web App Builder or Experience Builder), and share these applications.  They can share them with you as their instructor via a URL, and they can also share with their peers.  Students can also use these apps in an online or F2F presentation to you and their classmates, or even with external stakeholders.  These story maps can also extend beyond your course or program and become a key part of the students' professional portfolio that they take into the workplace. 

 JosephKerski_8-1633446158760.png 10.  Make it visionary.  Include topics such as space-time cube mapping, artificial intelligence and machine learning, the blurring of the lines between mapping and visualizations, 3D analytics, the meshing of BIM, CAD, and GIS tools for inside-building and outside mapping and analysis, coding and Jupyter Notebooks, virtual reality, and other cutting-edge GIS trends and capabilities in your course.  Again, not just because they exist, but to keep students in the mindset that the tools are rapidly evolving, and so they need to be lifelong learners.  Don't just include tools, though--include podcasts and video interviews with visionary people, such as through the Esri Virtual Job Shadow videos and the GeoInspirations series at Directions Magazine.  Keep the students thinking about the many ways they can make a contribution to society through GIS, such as through regularly purusing these industries

Perhaps most importantly, keep the higher, more noble goals in mind:  Using GIS is ultimately about building a better world.   You and your students have a key role to play in that world. 


JosephKerski_12-1633447438829.pngTeaching modern GIS tools and approaches enriches GIScience programs but also many other disciplines across higher education.  Try these strategies in your own courses, and I look forward to your comments below.    

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.