My last two blogs have been about GIS as a “powertool for STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] education” or GIS as an analytical tool for STEM. As exciting as it is to work with powerful tools and skilled users, it’s even more enjoyable to watch a good teacher in action, and see how students dive in when given a good opportunity. For GIS Day, I have had the privilege of visiting some classes participating in the Virginia Geospatial Semester. I watched one teacher work with two different classes. (I’ll call the teacher “Jane.”)
Jane’s task for the students was pretty straight-forward: “You’re trying to help a doctor who is moving into a nearby state (Pennsylvania), working with two age groups: 5-17 and 65 and over. You need to find the counties with the ‘optimal number’ of potential patients. You need to make two maps that engage ratios, make your decisions, generate a layout, post it electronically, and write a paragraph explaining your choices and selection.” That was about as much instruction as Jane gave.
It was fabulous! The students had enough just skills to tackle each part of this, on their own, but it was still a stretch. In making the maps and doing the analyses, they wrestled with different combinations of fields. They employed different strategies for evaluating “optimal” — queries, manual selection and comparison, and swiping to seek most glaring color schemes.
Working in pairs — and being 12th graders — they talked, and posed questions, to each other and to Jane. Jane, in turn, asked them questions, luring them to explore, explain, analyze, and synthesize. She listened, sometimes providing a bit of info, sometimes asking a specific question. At the end, a handful of teams got up to present their selections and strategies.
Almost everyone was intensely engaged throughout. (With seniors, there’s often “that 5-10%.”) They wrestled with the content, a raft of skills, and some pretty compelling math, then communicated their findings. And all the way thru, the simple questions led them further, step by step, different questions for different students.
Good tools like GIS are fun to work with. Good teachers can take even basic ideas, present them enticingly like a jungle gym or ropes course, give some general guidance, and let the students wrestle with the content. This affords individual attention and customized assistance. But it tests a teacher’s ability to “cope with divergence.” And, since the tools, skills, and content are truly infinite in scope, the questions never end, so it provides a chance to model the lifelong learner. It doesn’t have to be rocket science, either … it’s just incredibly powerful, in the right hands.
- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, ESRI Schools Program