Over the past 20 years, I have had the privilege of visiting over 250 different primary and secondary schools and universities to teach classes on geography, Earth Science, cartography, and GIS. Those visits gave me immense respect for educators and the hard work it is to teach effectively. Back in 1990, I relied on topographic maps, paper stereo aerial photograph pairs, and scribecoat and scribers for the cartography lessons I taught. Technologies have changed but the central themes of scale, analyzing data, and spatial analysis remain the same. I and my Education Team colleagues at ESRI are routinely asked to serve as guest instructors. While we cannot visit every school we are invited to, we visit a few every year because it is instructive for us to see how students and educators are interacting with GIS.
This semester, I visited a high school and a middle school in Colorado. The high school students had just come back from mapping trees and plants on their campus and I led them through a plate tectonics activity. In the middle school, I led a short discussion on how and why GIS is used, but was largely an observer as students worked through an activity on regions from the Our World GIS Education book. I was impressed at the way these two teachers forced their students to be problem-solvers. To be sure, students solve problems every day in school through worksheets and tests, but when it comes to doing it through an open-ended, inquiry-driven framework, they often have difficulty. I admired the teachers for not allowing students to say, “I’m stuck” without trying to problem-solve on their own. For example, when asked to examine the Pyrenees, most didn’t know where France and Spain were. They were encouraged to figure out how to turn on the labels for the countries, use the Internet to look it up, or consult one of the atlases that were in the back of the classroom.
Beyond the software skills, spatial thinking, and content knowledge fostered by the use of GIS, to me, its number one benefit is to teach students how to solve problems, to investigate, and to think.
- Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager