Four Strategies for GIS Educators

A new article in ArcNews entitled Four Guidelines for the New GIS Professional not only offers insights for those new to the field of GIS, but also for educators who teach the subject and who use it as a tool to teach history, geography, earth science, and other subjects.

The article identifies four strategies that can ensure that a GIS professional remains at the forefront of this profession:  (1)  Build a strong platform; (2)  Extend the platform across the organization; (3) Leverage existing GIS investments; and (4)  Be active in the GIS community.  I believe that educators can use the “building and extending the platform” strategies as an encouragement to spread spatial thinking and GIS beyond their own classroom walls.  If you are at a university or community college, that might mean giving a few presentations each academic year to colleagues across campus, in history, language arts, biology, or another discipline that is maybe a bit outside your comfort zone.  Spatial thinking has a way of bringing diverse disciplines together around the “whys of where”, solving problems, and providing career pathways for students.  If you are at a primary or secondary school, it might mean a presentation at a faculty meeting where you discuss why you are using GIS in your instruction, or having your students discuss their work at a school assembly, or conducting a hands-on workshop for educators in another school or the neighboring school district.

Leveraging existing GIS investments implies that, like anything worthwhile in education, teaching with GIS requires time and effort. These efforts will be longer lasting and more impactful on students if they are conducted in collaboration with your education colleagues on your campus or in your school district, or with colleagues far away who share similar interests.  And finally, being active in the GIS community is important for geospatial educators, to garner support for your efforts from administrators, to share instructional practices, data, maps, and apps, and to share your stories so that others will be inspired to use these approaches and tools in their own instruction.

The article points out four ways that the “GIS technology ecosystem” is rapidly changing, including cloud-based GIS, the widespread use of web mapping, the increasing adoption of open data, and the app revolution.  What do these and other changes mean for the GIS educator?

The article reminds us that this is an exciting time in GIS.  New applications and a growing awareness of the power of GIS are accelerating the need for skilled people in this field. Web mapping and visualization have opened the world’s eyes to the power of the spatial visualization of information and are transforming how people understand the world.  You, as a GIS educator, are key in making this happen, by enabling students to visualize, question, analyze, and interpret our world.

Visualize, question, analyze, and interpret

Visualize, question, analyze, and interpret: Four key parts of teaching and learning with GIS.

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Fun with GIS 173: Governors

Governor after governor after governor said it: Our state’s economy depends on improved education. They said it in different ways, but one after another said it over the weekend, at the winter meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, DC.

(image by NGA)

I had the privilege of attending this event, including this full-group session with special guest interviewer Maria Bartiromo. With education mentioned significantly in the first 38 minutes, Bartiromo asked each governor in turn “What’s the biggest economic issue that you face right now?” For many states, education was the lead concern; for most of the remainder, education was one of a few key factors.

What exactly do they seek? Skills of learning, thinking, solving problems, communicating, adapting, and collaborating. Students leaving high school with these abilities can go anywhere, in college or career — workers with the fundamental skills to meet both existing jobs and those not yet invented. These are the citizens and employees that businesses want, the schools and communities that governors crave. Economic growth, for these governors, depends on sound education.

Several sessions with governors included mention of STEM, social studies, English, language, arts, and even physical education. Schools need some special mix of content, skills, technology, teachers able to manage these multiple streams, and administrators working to help. This was exciting, of course, because GIS helps address every one of  their concerns. Talking between sessions with a handful of governors, each reinforced their interest in education, and each was pleased that schools could access professional web-based GIS for free, via Esri’s offer to the ConnectED Initiative.

Education matters hugely, and what governors really want is students who are hungry to learn, able to think, skilled at solving problems, and excited to put their skills to work. In all grades, and all subjects, GIS can help. It’s waiting for someone with the vision to try something new.

Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Maps as representations of reality: The deciduous-coniferous tree “line”

One theme that we frequently discuss in teaching and learning with GIS is that maps are representations of reality.  To be sure, they are very useful representations of reality, but they are representations nonetheless, laden with meaning, different possibilities for interpretation, and yes, some distortions and error.  In the fast-paced world that GIS analysis and creating maps has become, it is easy to lose sight of these representation fundamentals when we have maps and imagery at our fingertips, at multiple scales and over multiple themes.

In a video, I discuss just one place where care needs to be made in interpreting maps.  In the video, observe my surroundings as I stand near the traditional “line” that divides the deciduous forest to the south from the coniferous forest to the north in North America.  On most maps, this is indeed shown as a line.  However, consider the following:  Is the “line” really a line at all, or is it better described as a gradual change from deciduous to coniferous as one travels north? Is that vector line then better symbolized as a “zone”, or is vegetation better mapped as a raster data set, with each cell representing the percentage of deciduous and coniferous trees in that cell?

How many other data sets do we tend to see as having firm boundaries, when the boundaries in reality are far from being “firm”?  How does that affect the decisions we make with them?  Even the boundary between wetlands and open water were originally interpreted based on land cover data or a satellite or aerial image.   In another example, as stated in the GIS and Public Domain Data book, contour lines are not surveyed lines, but rather are interpreted, often from aerial stereo pairs.  And each data set that we can analyze with maps was collected at a specific scale, with certain equipment and software, at a specific date, and within certain margins of error that the organization established.

Maps are representations of reality.  They are some of the most useful tools ever invented, but care needs to be taken when using this or any abstracted data.  How might you be able to use these examples and considerations for “teachable moments” in your own instruction to foster critical thinking?

Maps as representations of reality:  The deciduous-coniferous tree "line"

Maps as representations of reality: The deciduous-coniferous tree “line”.

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Fun with GIS 172: Synergy

Growing up with three older brothers, I knew “synergy.” Football, frisbee, sledding, board games, card games, cardboard boxes, tag … all were much more fun together than the sum of what we could have done alone. The world is full of synergistic relationships.

Esri’s 2015 Federal Conference showed the synergy of the ArcGIS platform, answering the question asked by educators facing an expanding array of GIS tools: “Do I use ArcGIS Desktop, or go to ArcGIS Online with browsers, or go mobile? Desktop is powerful, but Online is easy, and mobile is ubiquitous.” The answer should “All of the above.”

Check out the Esri FedGIS Plenary videos. See how many times people are bringing data from the cloud to the desktop, doing analysis, merging with local data, pushing content to the cloud, displaying in browsers, doing analysis in the browser, pushing out content for mobile devices, gathering data on mobile for consumption back in a browser or on Desktop, and so on. The combination of tools is much more powerful than the sum of the parts. (And for a fast, fun example, see the “App Speed Dating” video (#19) to discover why more than one app can be useful.)

Our goal in education must be to help people learn to learn, be disposed to learning, crave it insatiably, and integrate constantly. Every day brings new content, skills, challenges, and opportunities. We need learners — of all ages — to be able to adapt, analyze a situation and see what is necessary, choose tools to accomplish key tasks, and maximize impact. We need to model this synergy for those who are already busy building tomorrow.

Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Got Skills for the Digital Earth? Sign up for Free Elmhurst College Online Course

Do you have a desire to build your skills in location-based analysis, and to discover why location matters in our everyday lives?  If so, sign up for a free 4 week Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offered by Elmhurst College, beginning 1 March 2015.

The course explores why “where?” is vitally important to a myriad of disciplines in our digital world.  Participants in the MOOC will learn what location technologies are used for, as well as fundamental geospatial concepts, skills and applications.  Taught through video lectures, interaction opportunities and discussion forums, participants will complete exercises and run through real-world examples using online spatial software that works on any device with a Web browser.  The MOOC is designed for those with no prior experience with geographic information systems (GIS) software all the way to advanced users. Participants will earn badges after each module, and those who complete six of the course’s seven modules will receive a certificate of completion. An additional certificate will be awarded for completion of all seven modules.   Module titles include fundamental geography, fundamental computing skills associated with geography, creative thinking, problem-solving and decision-making in geography, geospatial tools and technology, business fundamentals of geospatial environments, and advanced abilities in the field.

One of my favorite things about this course is its adherence to the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM).   Developing the personal, academic, workplace, industry, and management skills of the GTCM is a fundamental goal of the course.   To keep in touch with the conversations around the MOOC, see @ECDigitalEarth and #mydigitalearth on Twitter.  Hope to see you online in the course!

Elmhurst College

Elmhurst College

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Off the Beaten Path: A 3D Scene for the Poles of Inaccessibility

Some of the most remote locations on Planet Earth are the “poles of inaccessibility.” By definition, a pole of inaccessibility is the place most challenging to reach owing to its distance from locations that could provide access.  On land, it is often referred to as the most distant point from a coastline, and in the ocean, the most distant point from any land.

A surveyor friend and colleague of mine, Jerry Penry, and a local student recently journeyed to the point in North America, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and documented their journey in an article in The American Surveyor.  The three closest shorelines from this pole of inaccessibility are at Port Nelson on Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada; Everett, Washington, on the Pacific Ocean; and the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico between Galveston and Port Arthur, Texas.  Mathematicians have calculated the distance from the pole of inaccessibility of North America to be approximately 1,030 miles (1,657.6 km) to any of these three locations. The error of uncertainty is estimated to be around 9 miles (14.5 km) due to ambiguity of coastline definitions and mouths  of rivers.  This “uncertainty” makes for a teachable moment about map scale and data quality!

After researching the world’s major poles of inaccessibility, in North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, Australia, oceans, Northern Pole, and Southern Pole, I created a short spreadsheet that I added into ArcGIS Online.  I created a feature service out of the layer and used that service to create a 3D scene in ArcGIS Online for the Earth’s major poles of inaccessibility.  In the 3D scene viewer, I created several slides so that the scene becomes what I hope is a useful teaching tool and one that demonstrates how easy it is to create 3D scenes for many other themes and topics. Anyone can zoom into each of the points and determine the landforms, land use, nearest towns and rivers, and other features near and far.  Using my 2D map, anyone can measure the distance from each point to the nearest coastline.  Which point of inaccessibility on the planet is furthest from a coastline?

How might you be able to create a 3D scene using ideas from a research article, current event, topic, or theme?

Poles of Inaccessibility 3D Scene

Poles of Inaccessibility 3D Scene.

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Go Places with Spatial Analysis via a MOOC from Esri

Looking to improve your spatial analysis skills or maybe step into the world of spatial analysis for the first time?  If so, sign up for the next offering of the “Going Places with Spatial Analysis” MOOC from Esri, beginning 4 March 2015.  If you are new to MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), they are wonderful experiences featuring hands-on work with tools, solving problems, learning key content via videos and other means, networking with colleagues, and testing your newfound knowledge.

The Going Places with Spatial Analysis MOOC is for people who know something about data analysis and want to learn about the special capabilities of spatial data analysis. Spatial analysis focuses on location to gain a deeper understanding of data. Spatial analysis skills are in high demand by organizations around the world. You’ll get free access to the full analytical capabilities of ArcGIS Online, Esri’s cloud-based GIS platform. Previous experience with GIS software is helpful, but not necessary for tech-savvy problem solvers.

This course features:

  •  Hands-on exercises, short video lectures, quizzes, case studies and discussion.
  • 6 weeks of instruction, requiring 2 to 3 hours of study per week.
  • A certificate of completion and prizes.
  • Course dates: 4 March – 15 April 2015.

Could you and your career go places with spatial analysis?  Sign up today!

Going Places with Spatial Analysis Esri MOOC

Going Places with Spatial Analysis Esri MOOC.  Sign up today!

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New Textbook: Discovering GIS and ArcGIS, by Bradley Shellito

Our colleague Dr Bradley Shellito, from Youngstown State University, author of Introduction to Geospatial Technologies, has authored a new textbook entitled Discovering GIS and ArcGIS.  This book uses hands-on experiences and focuses on both the “how” and “why” of Geographic Information Systems. Students learn to combine an understanding of basic GIS concepts with practical ArcGIS skills, following step-by-step instructions to accomplish a wide range of real-world tasks and applications while always keeping sight on the conceptual basis and practical impact of what they are doing.   Discovering GIS and ArcGIS is appropriate for introductory GIS courses, or advanced or applied GIS courses. Instructors will find the coverage they need for a single intro-level course, a single advanced or applied course, or a two-course sequence.

One of my favorite things about this resource is the fact that the data for the exercises are conveniently hosted on the publisher’s (Macmillan) web page.  Also very thoughtfully included at the same location are high resolution images for instructors’ use, a test bank, solutions to exercises, and much more.  Chapters include how to use data and attribute data, how to conduct spatial analysis, how to create data, layouts, and models, and how to use 3D, Lidar, and elevation data.  The textbook is relevant, up-to-date, and focused on problem solving.  I was glad to see that Dr Shellito’s resource includes hands-on work with ArcGIS Online, as well.

I met Dr Shellito years ago when he had just written his Introduction to Geospatial Technologies book, and have had great respect for him ever since.  Congratulations, Dr Shellito!

If you use this book in your instruction, be sure to jot a note below and share your experience with the community.

Discovering GIS and ArcGIS, by Dr Bradley Shellito

Discovering GIS and ArcGIS, by Dr Bradley Shellito.

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Comparing the Spatial Accuracy of Two Location Apps on a Smartphone in the Field

Building on past field investigations where I studied the spatial accuracy of GPS receivers and smartphone location apps, I recently compared the spatial accuracy of two location apps on a smartphone.   My goals were twofold:  (1) To determine which of two location apps was more spatially accurate in varied terrain and conditions; and (2) To model a field activity that integrates geography, science, and mathematics that students can engage in easily and effectively.

On a hike in the chaparral hills of Southern California, I used my smartphone to collect my tracks using two apps–Motion X GPS and RunKeeper–at the same time.  Once the hike was done, I then exported the track lines and points as GPX files and uploaded them into ArcGIS Online.  The results, shown below, indicate that the two tracks were quite similar; within 1 meter of each other.  I was pleased with the spatial accuracy of both, despite the very steep terrain and considering that the phone was in my pocket most of the time rather than held up high to capture a theoretically stronger set of GPS and cell tower signals.

It was also evident that in this location, on this day, RunKeeper was a bit more spatially accurate, doing better at maintaining the trail switchbacks as I walked rather than cutting them off.   At one switchback, the two tracks were separated by 4.5 meters.  However, just downhill and to the northeast of the image below, Motion X was more accurate for a specific 10 meter stretch of trail.  It must be remembered, however, that these statements “assume” that the satellite image is the best benchmark of spatial accuracy, but it too contains distortions and error.  Furthermore, on a different day and time, with the GPS constellation in a different array, my results could vary.  Varying the speed walked, the time and date, the location app, the location at which the phone is held, the type of phone, and other factors all make for easy-to-implement field investigations that incorporate science, mathematics, geography, and geotechnologies.  And, while outside, you can have rich discussions on land use, land cover, natural processes, access to open space, animal habitat, climate and weather, and much more, as I do here.  The results are easily examined using ArcGIS Online, and students can also create a presentation or a story map in ArcGIS Online to communicate their results.

Give it a try and comment below on the results of your investigations!

Comparing the spatial accuracy of two smartphone location apps in the field

Comparing the spatial accuracy of two smartphone location apps in the field.

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Fun with GIS 171: Lighthouses

Maps are magical because they expose so much info so quickly. This works even for GIS in education. In mid-2014, the White House announced Esri’s participation in ConnectED. ArcGIS Online Organization subscriptions started being issued to any US K12 school requesting one for instruction. At the 2014 Esri Conference, we launched a story map showing these. Today, that number is about 1000.

The second map in the series shows “Lighthouses.” A lighthouse is a beacon, a guidepost for those in need, a marker for all to consider as they make their way. Some are tall, robust, and brilliant, with clarion voice; others are more quiet, less dramatic. The best lighthouses work in concert with others, so explorers can advance ever farther. Today, this map shows just one per state, but we know there are other “lighthouses of GIS in K12 ed.”

The map has a link inviting lighthouse nominations — administrative as well as instructional, informal as well as formal. Tell us about someone using GIS in K12 education, or supporting it from outside, so we can explore the story, enrich the map, and help others progress more swiftly and safely.

The other maps contain powerful content as well — educators in search of mentors, GeoMentors willing to help educators, alums of Esri’s T3G educator institute who can provide guidance, and states and districts with broad licenses. The patterns and relationships in these maps tell powerful stories, but we really want more lighthouses with which to guide others. Help us out by nominating situations from which others could learn, whether your own story or that of someone else.

Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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