GIS in education holds the key to empowering today’s students to solve the complex challenges facing our world.
As issues that affect our everyday lives grow in importance on a global scale – climate change, economic globalisation, urban sprawl, biodiversity loss, sustainable agriculture, water quality, crime, cultural diversity, energy, tourism, political instability, and natural hazards – teaching and learning with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is critical to empower people to solve these challenges.
This requires a populace that has a firm foundation in spatial thinking and analysis, one that can see the ‘big picture’, can think critically and work with an increasing amount of data.
Building a spatially literate community begins with frequent and rich immersion in GIS in primary and secondary school, through university, and as part of lifelong learning experiences.
Why GIS in education?
GIS also provides a powerful decision-making toolkit that can be used in educational administration and educational policy to visualise and manage:
- monitoring campus safety
- mapping campus buildings, cable, and infrastructure
- routing school buses
- planning where and when to close or open schools
- strategising recruitment efforts
In instruction, GIS in the hands of students helps them to understand content in a variety of disciplines, not only in geography, but in history, mathematics, language arts, environmental studies, chemistry, biology and many more.
GIS is used as an inquiry-driven, problem-solving, standards-based set of tasks that incorporates fieldwork and provides career pathways that are increasingly in demand. It helps students think critically, use real data, and connects them to their own community. It does so in informal, primary, secondary, and university settings and appeals to today’s visual learners.
Geotechnologies, along with biotechnologies and nanotechnologies, are the three skills identified as key for the 21st Century.
For centuries, maps have stirred imaginations and inspired explorations of the unknown. Today, maps are used to help understand relationships across areas and regions. These spatial relationships are analysed using maps in digital form within a GIS framework. Rather than as static documents, these maps are dynamic. They can be analysed and combined with other maps and information, charts, stories, and multimedia. GIS, together with remote sensing and Global Positioning Systems (GPS), make up the geotechnologies, which help people make everyday decisions more effectively and efficiently.
GIS: providing content, skills, perspectives
Using GIS provides a way of exploring a body of content knowledge and provides a way of thinking about the world—the “whys of where.” The geographic perspective informs other disciplines. When epidemiologists study the spread of diseases, scientists study climate change, or businesspeople determine where to locate a new retail establishment, they use spatial analysis: GIS provides critical tools for solving real problems.
GIS in instruction incorporates fieldwork, needed for understanding and appreciating our world. Students can gather locations with GPS or smartphones with information about tree species, historical buildings, water quality, or other variables on a field trip or on their own school or university campus. The data can be gathered in citizen science mode by all students simultaneously populating a single online web map.
Asking geographic questions
What is the relationship between birth rate and life expectancy? Why does this relationship exist? How does acid mine drainage affect water quality downstream? How will climate change affect global food production? With GIS, students explore the relationships between people, climate, land use, vegetation, river systems, aquifers, landforms, soils, natural hazards, and much more. With Big Data, students need to be able to deal with uncertainty about data, to understand its limitations with regards to error and omissions, and to effectively manage it. GIS is a tool that provides holistic computer and management skills.
GIS and the future of education
Our world is constantly changing. Students use GIS to understand that the Earth is changing, think scientifically and analytically about why it is changing, and dig deeper.
Teaching and learning with GIS will encourage students to ask the critical questions about where we live.
Should planet Earth be changing in these ways?
Is there anything that I can do about it?
GIS empowers students as they become decision-makers to make a difference in this changing world.
About the author
Joseph Kerski, Ph.D, GISP