What are the 10 most important educational benefits that GIS fosters?

08-31-2021 11:15 AM
Esri Notable Contributor
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Recently I wrote an essay about the 10 most important GIS skills that working with ArcGIS Online fosters.  These include creating expressions, symbolizing and classifying, performing spatial analysis, and others.  However, as important as GIS skills are, working with GIS fosters far more benefits in education.  Furthermore, GIS is not "just maps" - maps help us understand patterns, relationships, and trends, but mapping is not the end goal:  Rather, understanding is the end goal.  Understanding something in a deeper, richer, more holistic way, and the smarter decisions and action that can result from that understanding.  As Richard Saul Wurman said, "Understanding precedes action."  In this essay and in this video, I explore what I consider to be the 10 most important educational benefits that working with GIS fosters, starting with spatial thinking.  I look forward to your feedback.

The Top 10 Educational Benefits to Working with GIS 

graphic_dashboard.png (1)  Spatial Thinking.  Maps have always been appealing; they convey a large amount of information in a small amount of space. In the past, this space was always constrained by physical media--stone tablets, wood blocks, silver plates (yes, silver!), film, and paper.  Today's digital maps are all around us, and increasingly embedded in dashboards, story maps, articles, video, and multimedia of all types.  They are in 2D and 3D representations, with the fourth dimension of time increasingly enabled through such techniques as animations and space-time cubes.  Spatial thinking is key to understanding our increasingly interconnected, complex world, and key to solving the serious problems we are facing in that world.  Spatial thinking is greatly enabled by interacting with interactive maps made possible through GIS.   Through GIS, students are not only consuming maps created by others, but they are creating their own maps, infographics, and web mapping applications, and therefore are deeply connecting with the creative process.  Learning to think spatially, sometimes called graphicacy, is every bit as important to teach at all levels in education as numeracy, articulacy, and literacy, as educators and scholars have argued as long ago as 1971.   Spatial thinking is coupled with holistic thinking--considering the world as more than just the sum of its parts.  It is also connected to seeing the world as a system of systems--the biosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, and anthrosphere--the human sphere.  Spatial thinking also fosters the understanding of important Earth cycles such as the carbon cycle and the hydrologic cycle. 

JosephKerski_0-1630426196487.png (2)  Critical Thinking.  Critical thinking I believe must include three aspects:  (2a) Critical thinking about data.  (2b)  Critical thinking about methods.  (2c).  Critical thinking about maps.   Questions to pose as you teach with GIS include:   What difference would changing the data set theme, resolution, time, or scale make in the final analysis?  What difference would changing the data set source to one collected by a different organization?  What difference would changing the Arcade expression make in the appearance of this map, and why?  What difference would an erase rather than a union function make in the final sites we are considering, and why?  Can you trust this map to make a decision with?  Is this map or layer suitable for your project?  Can you trust the data that you yourself collected in the field?  What are the inherent errors in data, from map projections to missing attributes, and how can you manage this error?

graphic_pbl.jpeg(3)  Problem-based Learning (PBL).   GIS was created to solve problems.  Using GIS in education helps students frame, visualize, and grapple with problems.  It even enables students to create solutions to those problems, whether it is about natural hazards, climate, urban greenways, litter, energy, social inequity, or the other complex issues of our day.  PBL implies active learning, and GIS is a natural fit because when using GIS, student are actively engaged as scientists, planners, and other professional decision makers.  Students are not just learning about climate or population, they are doing climate and population analysis.  Students in PBL learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects.   Using GIS, students have flexibility to choose projects and problems that they see in their community and their world that are serious and need addressing.  

graphic_inquiry.jpeg (4)  Geographic and Scientific Inquiry.  Inquiry involves asking questions, gathering data, assessing the quality of that data, evaluating methods, analyzing the data and the results of the methods used, making decisions and recommendations, and taking action.  This process usually sparks additional questions, and the process continues.  The effective use of GIS is keenly tied to this process of inquiry.  At its core, GIS has always been "a thinkers tool" as I and Charlie Fitzpatrick have often written and said.  GIS requires students to ask questions.  To be honest, students aren't used to asking their own questions; they are really most used to instructors asking them questions.  How can we encourage students to ask thoughtful questions of their own?  A good map teaches you to ask a better question, as my colleague at Esri Charlie Frye has said, and as I explain here.  Asking questions leads to tenacity in problem solving, and those who ask questions are those who employers want to hire to improve the efficiency of their workplace and help their organization to meet its mission. 

graphic_table.jpeg (5)  Data Fluency.   In this essay, I made the case based on Jukes et al.'s book Understanding the Digital Generation that using GIS fosters data fluency.  The book's authors prefer the word "fluency" over literacy because it conveys a sense of lifelong learning, such as becoming fluent in a language--in this case, the language of technology.  There are five important fluencies:  (1) Solution fluency:  Whole brain thinking, including creativity and problem solving applied in real time.  (2)  Information fluency:  The ability to access digital information sources to retrieve desired information and assess and critically evaluate the quality of information.  (3)  Collaboration fluency:   This "teamworking proficiency" is the "ability to work cooperatively with virtual and real partners in an online environment to create original digital products."  (4)  Creativity fluency:  The "process by which artistic proficiency adds meaning through design, art, and storytelling."  (5)  Media fluency:  The ability to look analytically at any communication media to interpret the real message, determine how the chosen media is being used to shape thinking, evaluate the efficacy of the message, and the ability to publish original digital products to match the media to the intended message.   Space does not permit me to make all of the connections between these fluencies and what students do when they use GIS and geographic inquiry to grapple with problems.  However, I have witnessed thousands of times over the past 20 years that students doing so engage in all five of these fluencies.   The creating of story maps alone is key to creative fluency (#4), and thinking critically about maps is key to success with #5 and indeed, success in many aspects of modern life. 

graphic_community.jpeg (6)  Community Connections.   GIS is a tool used globally and on global problems such as climate, education, water, and other United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but it is at the same time it is a tool that students and educators can use to engage with issues at the local level, such as planning a new bike trail, nurturing public art or community gardens, or tackling traffic accidents or graffiti.  With the rise of community data portals such as ArcGIS Hub, and indicators in real time of what is happening on, under, and over the planet, and students' ability to collect their own data, there is no shortage of data to examine, map, and use in understanding and engaging with local issues. 

graphic_uav.jpeg  (7)  Field work.   I contend that field work needs to include (A) field methods, and (B) getting outside!  Field work is essential not only understanding our changing world, and our communities, but is essential for nurturing an "Earth Ethic" in students, so that they will appreciate, and want to care for, the marvelous planet on which we live.  Successful field work involves planning, executing, and analyzing results.  It is keenly tied to project planning, dealing with uncertainty, working with high-tech and low tech methods, and dealing with data--the units that will be used, the variables, and the resulting data tables, images, geodatabases, and maps.  It often involves contacting others in the community for access to certain lands or to garner their support and participation.  Survey123 or other Esri GIS apps can be used, but students can also use other citizen science apps such as iNaturalist, phone apps for noise or plant species, and bring the data into the ArcGIS environment for spatial analysis.  Field work was an integral part, for example, of a Data Citizens project I was involved in, where students and faculty mapped storm drains and learned about the water and sewage system of their own community.  Field work, even if it is just on the school or university campus, involves the act of getting outside and observing, both with tech tools but also with one's own five senses.  It is also a key part in overcoming "nature deficit disorder" as explained by Richard Louv in his groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods. 

graphic_building.jpeg (8) Career Pathways.  "Are we ever going to use this after we get out of school?" is an oft-heard phrase articulated by students.  While we shouldn't use GIS in education "just because" it is in demand in the workplace, GIS does provide students with key career skills that will never "go out of style."  Why?  In part because students who use GIS become valuable employees for nonprofit, academia, local-to-international government agencies, and private industry.  They are able to make decisions, work with data, and see things holistically.  The "Whys of Where" will be increasingly asked in all aspects of the workforce in the coming years.  We are faced with ever-increasing pressures on this, our own planet, for which there is no spare.  Sustainability and resilience will be in every organization's plan in the future, and GIS will always have a key role.  Furthermore I have seen time and time again how students' own professional behavior "rises up" in professionalism because they know they are using a set of tools that are being used in the professional community.   See the career videos here and listen to these podcasts I have created for dozens of intriguing people using GIS in their day to day work.

graphic_content_knowl.jpeg (9)  Content Knowledge.  For years I and my teammates have argued that when you are teaching and learning with GIS, you are learning core content knowledge.   GIS was never about "buttonology" -- memorizing where tools and buttons are on the GIS interface and learning how to use them.   Even if you are teaching and learning in a GIS or GIScience course, every procedure has real data behind it, and so you are concurrently studying plate tectonics, ecoregions, climate, the hydrologic network, transportation, energy, city zoning, or many other aspects of our natural and human-built world.  GIS is core to science, social science, and many other fields.  And GIS is rapidly expanding to fields outside geography, GIS, and planning, such as health, business, civil engineering, data science, history, humanities, and many others.  Those fields use their own data, approaches, and problems, and students in those fields are learning about cause-and-effect, and human-environment interactions upon health, supply chain management, building energy efficiency, and a myriad of other topics in those disciplines.  In both of these "teaching GIS" and "teaching with GIS" categories, I would argue that content knowledge is acquired more rapidly than memorizing large volumes of information, because students are actively engaging with the data and methods as a practicing professional would in those fields.

graphic_changeagent2.jpeg (10)  Students as Change Agents.   Students empowered with the skills, content knowledge, and perspectives detailed in this and the previous essay have the confidence and ability to become change agents in their future workplace.  I would also argue that given the examples detailed in the Esri community space over the years, such as here at a high school and here at the community college, that students are already change agents in their own school and university, and beyond.  GIS can also serve to help young women and other underrepresented populations step into technology-based careers.  Educators from primary to university level as well as those in informal educational settings such as museums and 4H and other after-school programs love using GIS because it embodies why they all got into education in the first place--making a positive difference in the world through caring, engaged students.  

Which of these 10 benefits have you personally witnessed when teaching or learning GIS?  Which of the 10 do you think will be most important during the remainder of this decade?  What benefit have I left off this list?  I invite 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.