Want a crowd at an education event? Put “STEM” in your title. Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics is a stronger attention grabber than ever. Whether or not the phrase was used, STEM education has been hot at least since Sputnik floated overhead in 1957. But some educators aren’t really STEM-savvy. I have been asked “Can you show me something STEM?” A few have even looked at a map of sea surface temperature next to a map of social media comments filtered on wildfires and confided “I can do whatever I want as long as it’s STEM. Have you got anything?” I try not to show my astonishment.
Geographic information system (GIS) technology is ALL STEM (or “STEAM”, with ‘Arts’ added.) Working within a context of physical or social realms (or both), users explore, modify, integrate, and analyze data, with a range of tools, thinking critically about patterns and relationships, in order to frame and answer questions and solve problems, and then communicate the information so as to feed action. (See myriad examples in Map Books.) Whether analyzing factors that influence crop yield on a farm; modeling the potential impact of past weather events on current landscapes; seeking more efficient routes for delivering school children from scattered homes to a handful of schools; identifying most critical land parcels to optimize biodiversity; determining whether a certain store might survive in a given location; moving personnel and equipment in front of a fast-moving wildfire or erupting medical emergency to maximize preservation of lives and resources; managing dozens of considerations to design Congressional districts that maximize equality; or any of a million other tasks, GIS users integrate science, technology, engineering, and math, constantly.
When I walk through such examples, some educators blanch a bit and ask “How do I keep all these elements in mind? And how on earth do I teach this to kids who are more tech-savvy than me?” This is a challenge. The world today is more complex, nuanced, inter-connected, and technofied than ever. Educators can seldom pursue a “pure” focus; kids certainly can’t. With so much information to manage, from increasingly many channels, they need to see relevance. Being a responsible and productive global citizen, conscious of the impacts of one’s choices, alert to the integration of culture, economy, politics, and power, near and far, and changes over the past, present, and future, is no easy task. That’s why it is so important for learners (of all ages) to practice the process constantly, building broader and deeper background knowledge, to weave with stronger and more flexible techniques for consuming and using information.
Ask an educator: Are your students permitted, even encouraged, to use cell phones in class? Educators who recognize small computers when they see one embrace the devices as learning enhancement tools. A steady diet of the content and techniques from yesterday simply falls short in preparing learners for the world of today, much less tomorrow. GIS is evolving rapidly, moving into new industries, jumping onto new platforms, ingesting more data formats, opening new frontiers, helping more people understand more phenomena and solve more problems. GIS users breathe and practice STEM (and STEAM). (See careers info.)
Educators who want to integrate STEM through GIS can get started with ArcGIS Online. This web-based environment allows users to be productive in seconds, and to build STEM knowledge and skills endlessly. There’s even a free online course designed just for educators getting started. It will help educators ask students good questions, far more powerful than “Can you show me something in STEM?”
- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager