Tag Archives: Projects

Using Mobile GIS with Girl Scout Cookie Sales


I’m always looking for good opportunities to teach my kids about GIS. Recently I was presented with a great opportunity to do just this when my daughter, Sarah, was selling Girl Scout cookies. Sarah was very excited to sell lots of cookies so we headed out in our coats to sell to our neighborhood. The first day we had some sales, some “no’s”, and many folks not home. The next day we were excited to get selling again but we had a problem. What if my wife was going to take Sarah out to sell cookies? How would I easily communicate to her which people declined and which were not home? This would get even more difficult if we didn’t get to everyone the next day. All we needed was a simple map where we could draw all the houses where people either bought or declined. I decided to see if we could use ArcGIS to solve this problem and teach Sarah a bit along the way.

Sarah helped by reading off the cookie names while I added them as fields to a geodatabase feature class. Each field would store a count of the number of cookies purchased at that location. I added a couple more fields for information like the sales girl (Sarah), customer name, total boxes sold, etc. I then created a simple map that showed sales in red and “no’s” in gray. Then I published the map with feature access to ArcGIS Server and added the resulting map services to a new web map in ArcGIS.com. Together we used the find feature in the ArcGIS.com map to find all the addresses from the day before and add all our sales to the map. The resulting map looked like this.

At this point Sarah started to understand how the places we walked the day before related to the map.

Before we headed out to sell cookies again I loaded this web map on my iPhone using the ArcGIS for iOS application. I showed Sarah how she could tap on any of the existing sales to see what was purchased there.


Then whenever we left a house, we took an extra minute to enter the new data. We used the data collection feature of the ArcGIS for iOS application to enter the GPS and sales information. I was really surprised at how quickly my seven year old daughter picked this up.


I showed her how to enter the first location and she basically took it from there. That is until her fingers got cold, then she delegated data entry to her father.
So Sarah got a good understanding of how to collect the data and how it could help her quickly find the houses that we still needed to visit. After all the orders came in, we used ArcGIS again to help deliver the cookies. We loaded the wagon and Sarah used the iPhone to tell us where to go and what to deliver.

Once we delivered cookies and received payment, she would take care of marking the customer as paid in the GIS. Since everyone wasn’t home the first time we went out, we then needed an easy way to quickly show where we needed to deliver cookies. To make this easy I opened the ArcGIS.com map in ArcGIS Explorer Online and built a query called “Needs Delivery”.

Sarah could then use the query in the ArcGIS for iOS application to see where we needed to go. This was a great teaching opportunity. Sarah learned that a GIS lets you ask the map questions.

Using ArcGIS.com and ArcGIS for iOS was a great way to teach my daughter about GIS. For Sarah I think her favorite part was the arrow that showed up on our GPS location showing our current direction on the map. For me I it was a fun use of the technology and a fun time with Sarah.

Editor’s Note: Additional resources have been posted that may be of interest to readers:
Girl Scout Cookie Information Model -
Mapping Girl Scout Cookies Presentation (pptx)

- Tom Brenneman, Esri Solution Engineer

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GIS and the Ill-Structured Problem

Educational research shows that students can learn both about content and about thinking strategies by working through what are known as “ill-structured” problems. The ill-structured problem is fundamental to problem-based learning (PBL), where students probe deeply into issues, searching for connections, grappling with uncertainty, and using knowledge to fashion solutions. As Stepien and Gallagher (1993) state, “As with real problems, students encountering ill-structured problems will not have most of the relevant information needed to solve the problem at the outset. Nor will they know exactly what actions are required for resolution. After they tackle the problem, the definition of the problem may change. And even after they propose a solution, the students will never be sure they have made the right decision. They will have had the experience of having to make the best possible decision based on the information at hand. They will also have had a stake in the problem.”

In my work with educators and students over the years, I have found that GIS is very well suited to the ill-structured problem. In fact, oftentimes, the best GIS problems are those that fit at least a few of the “ill-structured” criteria above. GIS was created to solve complex problems at multiple scales and from multiple viewpoints. Data in a GIS are imperfect, and are full of uncertainties, and students who work with them become critical consumers of data, an important 21st Century skill.

Students are often so used to a single “right” answer, and are initially baffled by PBL-based strategies and tools that engage those strategies such as GIS. Typically when I work with students using GIS, they ask me, “Is my map right?” In response, I ask them a question: “Does your map help you understand the problem or issue, and help you answer the questions being asked?” But, given time, they begin to understand that the issues they are grappling with are complex, and there might not be a single correct answer. Certainly, their final set of maps is not the end goal, but a means to an end in their inquiry-driven investigation.

For example, in the lesson that I created on analyzing the Hungary toxic flood of 2010 using ArcGIS Explorer, the environmental consequences of the flood are numerous, long-lasting, and occur at multiple scales. I ask the students to compare this incident with other toxic spills around the world, ending the lesson with asking students to analyze sources of toxins in their own community. Student answers will vary depending on where they live and how they judge the severity of different toxic spills around the world. If they can justify their answers, and back up their answers with data, including spatial data analyzed with their GIS tools, then I believe that their answers deserve high marks.



Stepien, William, and Shelagh Gallagher. 1993. Problem-based learning: As authentic as it gets. Authentic Learning 50(7): 25-28.

How can you design ill-structured problems using spatial analysis and GIS?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Fun with GIS #76: If EAST Were Everywhere

If kids in Arkansas ran our schools, EAST would head in all directions. “EAST” (originally “Environmental And Spatial Technologies”) is an educational project in about 180 schools in Arkansas, plus another handful beyond. It’s a high-tech, service-oriented, student-driven, interdisciplinary, project-based learning operation. It’s where school and life merge. It’s STEM plus social studies, CTE plus English/arts, service plus gym, all rolled into one, on steroids. And at EAST Conference last week, students from grades 4-12 showed what they can do when permitted to grab the reins. (See also the 2010 column, “Fun With GIS #40: GIS and EdReform.”)

Every year, looking at their projects, and watching the students during conference, I see how much kids want to learn, be involved in the community, be helpful, and make the world a better place. Students are charged with conceiving, designing, conducting, trouble-shooting, and assessing projects of significance, and presenting their work to the world. Juggling a buffet of technology, they need to figure out what questions to ask in order to learn what they need, and do what they must to accomplish their task. The adults are “facilitators”, in title and behavior; they monitor and ask questions, offer counsel and point out opportunities, but let each student “drive his or her own bus.” Kids get the chance to try, stumble, grapple, explore new routes, research and study online, seek help from other students over the Internet or even -gasp!- adults out in the real world, problem-solve, create, and innovate. Since all work aims to benefit others – in the school, the community, or halfway around the world – students push hard to succeed and help out.


Many students work with GIS … full ArcInfo 10 and extensions. They don’t know they “can’t do it;” they just learn it. They build and gather data, wrestle with the complexity of the world, manage a blizzard of toolbars and buttons with aplomb, and focus constantly on what will help them move down the road toward their goal. They learn uncommon volumes of life lessons which, independent research has shown, helps them both feel responsible for their own learning and seek extraordinarily to enhance it. In GIS projects, their methods can be haphazard, their strategies a bit unorthodox, their processes circuitous, and “operational efficiency” erratic, but they pursue their goals with unbridled zest and passion, building banks of related knowledge even at a young age.

I judged projects cataloguing local land use change, improving school bus routes, and constructing trail maps for the public. I listened to students new to GIS puzzle thru spatial queries to determine voting patterns when a local millage vote failed. I saw parcel maps highlighting irregularities in local funding. Students spoke of staying hours late to collaborate with peers from other classes, grades, and schools, or work solo in the wee hours before school. And I talked with EAST alums, including young men and women who had earned full-ride scholarships to college on the basis of their demonstrated competency, and heard them describe with maturity their studies, work, and life plans.


With a few minutes to speak at opening assembly, I told the 2000 students that I had spent the previous weekend listening to the nation’s governors struggling with how to “fix education” in their states. But these youth knew the answer. At the final banquet, Arkansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Tom Kimbrell asked the crowd “How many of you would like to see your other classes operate like EAST does?” The thunderous reply declared in no uncertain terms, that if students from Arkansas ran US schools, the light from EAST would shine out in all directions, developing strong kids, building communities, serving the country, and making the world a better place.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, Esri Schools Program

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The Amazing Around the World Flight of the Pacific Clipper During World War II

The spatial perspective through GIS has been shown in research and in classroom application as enhancing student understanding of hundreds of processes, patterns, and phenomena from local to global. A new lesson in the ArcLessons library provides another means of incorporating spatial thinking and analysis in teaching and learning—in this case, applied to a historical event.



The problem that students face when opening the lesson is as follows: Getting set to land in New Zealand in December 1941, the crew of a Pan American Airways seaplane learned about the attacks at Pearl Harbor and had to make a fateful decision: Since it was now impossible to fly back across the Pacific Ocean given the unfolding war, could they return to the United States by flying west instead of east? No commercial airliner had ever flown around the world before. Could they make it? Your task is to use spatial analysis and GIS to analyze every detail of this epic event.

Skills developed include analyzing a nonfictional historical story using the spatial perspective, analyzing patterns and spatial relationships within 2-D (ArcMap) and 3-D (ArcGIS Explorer) GIS, creating an ArcGIS Explorer presentation, performing spatial and attribute queries, creating a map layout, and presenting findings to an audience.

Students investigate the story in popup boxes along the route and perform spatial and attribute queries. For a short account of the journey, read John Marshall’s story on http://www.radiocom.net/Clipper/, and for the full story, read Ed Dover’s book The Long Way Home available from: http://www.longwayhome.com/.

Lessons such as this show the value of GIS and the spatial perspective in enhancing understanding of literature and history. These lessons are well connected to educational content standards in social studies and English language arts that explain what students should know and be able to do. Using GIS in this way makes it clear that GIS is a critical thinking tool. The understanding of any story—fiction or nonfiction—can be enhanced by maps and spatial analysis. What story do you want to investigate?

-Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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The Grand Challenges of GIS in Instruction

Last week I wrote about what several geographers consider to be the “grand challenges of Geographic Information Sciences.” But to grapple with these grand challenges, we need to have people moving into the field of GIScience in the first place. To do that, we must engage students in thinking about their community, region, country, and world in a geospatial context, beginning at young ages. How can we help students to see that every major current issue—from natural hazards, biodiversity, agriculture, energy, water quality and availability, human health, social justice, politics, migration, climate, crime, and many more—are inextricably linked to geographic processes that occur over space and time? Using GIS is one powerful way of seeing these patterns, processes, and connections.

Students using GIS apply scientific inquiry—ask a question, gather data, understand data, analyze data, draw conclusions, and develop a fuller understanding about a particular issue. One of my favorite aspects of using GIS in instruction is that it helps to understand change. Changes from human and natural causes occur all around us, and if students analyze why and how things change, then they can begin thinking on a deeper level: Should the Earth be changing in these ways? Is there anything that I could or should be doing about it? This captures not only the heart of spatial thinking, inquiry and problem-based learning, but also empowers students as they become decision-makers to make a difference in this changing world of ours. GIS has ties to many disciplines, but a natural home for GIS in education is in geography, which has not seen consistent and high support over the past century in American education. How can we change this?

I stated above that we must engage students in thinking spatially. But before that can happen, we must engage students, period. Too often, students are bored, viewing education as something that ends as soon as they graduate, instead of being a lifelong learning experience. We must allow them the freedom, support, and tools so that they can discover and pursue their interests. This may be the grandest challenge of all.

All of the topics raised here can be debated and expanded. I look forward to your thoughts.

- Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager.

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Fun with GIS #48: GIS, STEM, and the Future

Last week, I participated in a meeting of businesses looking at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) education. It’s not simply a STEM-savvy workforce that businesses seek, but a STEM-literate
populace: citizens who see or can build meaning in the array of numbers in the news, embrace and extend technology, live and vote with an understanding of scientific thinking, and have a disposition for breaking problems into relevant components and designing strategies with which to address them.

Geographic information systems (GIS) technology is a perfect fit for STEM. GIS users display, sift, disaggregate, integrate, and analyze information in infinite combinations. The vast sweep of industries using GIS (see www.esri.com/industries), and the broad spectrum of applications within any individual industry (see www.esri.com/mapmuseum), show that adults in all walks of life rely on GIS to understand the world and make informed decisions, about the nature of places (from cellular to galactic scale) and effective use of resources (money, tools, time, people).

How can we help students, schools, and communities in these troubled times? Engage GIS, as early, often, and powerfully as possible. Students who build their own data tables about family members can fathom the power of data and distinguish proper from inappropriate. Kids who map the room from an overhead view can build similar displays of their larger world, find meaning in symbols, and grasp displays that extend the world beyond their personal experience. By anchoring learning in the familiar then launching into the foreign, we help students establish a flexible framework for knowledge, engage the boundless inquisitiveness and creativity of youth, and foster a disposition for seeking appropriate information. From mapping ant colonies in the school playground to earthquakes around the world, or the flow of bodies in a school building to traffic in a city, or temperature patterns around the school grounds to global climate patterns, the stretch is small, but vital.


And, wherever I go across the US, employers say to me “Test scores and diplomas are fine, but what I really need is people who can find and integrate information, analyze data, and make informed decisions; collaborate and work independently; and learn, adapt, solve problems, and communicate effectively. Show me kids like that and they’ve got a job. We can’t find enough inside our state, so we’re stealing them from other states.”

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, ESRI Schools Program

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Fun with GIS #47: GeoTech in the Community

I spent last week on vacation in a small town along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Along with assorted outdoor activities, I assisted our friends from GIS ETC and Holbrook Travel in conducting some GIS and GPS instruction. The townsfolk recognize that their future is tied intimately to their extraordinary natural heritage. In order to preserve and manage their precious lands and waters, they need to map it … all of it … the trails and roads, the buildings and networks, the natural and manmade waters, the lands both developed and not, and the creatures great and small, including both local and migratory … everything. It’s a daunting task, and the technical infrastructure is modest, but the spirit is strong. In a region of under 1000 people, more than 50 have the vision of why they need this and how to do it. They are collaborating, across organizations, across data interests, and across ages, with both young and old learning geospatial tech.

The town is a microcosm, a lesson for us all. In the face of accelerating and compounding environmental and economic challenges, communities everywhere need to map their character. Regardless of the local economic base, communities need to document what exists in order to make good decisions about scarce resources. This simple process is the common life ring that communities everywhere need in these increasingly troubled times. By documenting what’s where, and sharing tasks and resources between stakeholders, seeking common ground while acknowledging differences, communities can make more informed decisions affecting their collective future.

Children are, of course, a part of this, and need to play a part within it. In fact, if allowed, they can be a tremendous resource, facilitating the process while also building their own knowledge bank and personal future. Their natural inquisitiveness, creativity, and capacity for learning are enormous assets, and communities that engage these effectively will be far better off than those who see youth simply as extraneous, or worse.

In this little Costa Rican town, there is a new level of excitement and mission after just one week. They know that they hold the key to their future, and they recognize that time is short. Middle-aged workers who had never touched a computer and bright young children full of life are embarking on a mission, together, to document, preserve, manage, and build their present and future, with geospatial technology.

It was one of my most inspiring vacations ever.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, ESRI Schools Program

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Fun with GIS #46: Club GIS

Last week I visited an after-school club that has been doing GIS. This is a club in Montana, with a story that will be visible in the soon-to-be-released Winter 2010 edition of GIS Educator. (Check back soon if it’s not posted yet.)

The club idea is great! While it’s nice to see people using GIS in school for instructional and administrative purposes, club activities are, by definition, for the fun of it! This club has been mapping caves, analyzing their data, and coming up with some recommendations for the National Park Service about management of the caves.



L: On the way to a cave, the teacher/club leader points out some neat geology.
R: The cave zone, in oblique view, using ArcGIS Explorer‘s “Topo” base map.

The team’s geomentor is a GIS analyst for the county, and got the teacher started with GIS about two years ago. The team has put together some unique data, gathered through some pretty exciting trips. One of the seniors said “I used to do sports after school, but when the club began, this combination of outside and inside, trips and computers, was just more fun, and useful. So I do this now.”

Several of us talked with the students that day, and they drank in everything we presented about GIS. Meanwhile, the work the club is doing is making a difference, to the community, the park staff, and the team itself. Sometimes, I have to write about disheartening subjects. But this was truly a day for me to have fun with GIS!

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, ESRI Schools Program

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Fun with GIS #45: 4th Grade GIS

I’ve had the great fortune to visit a handful of schools in the last month. Most recently was an elementary school, in Waterville, WA. This is the school that was on stage at the ESRI User Conference in 2005, and profiled in Edutopia. They are still working with the NatureMapping program.

Waterville is as inconspicuous a place as you can find. The entire town is smaller than some high school classes. The district, composed of one school, has only 270 students, K-12. Like so many schools, this one makes do with insufficient resources.

They also jump in and do what makes many schools hesitate: they use GIS, and they do it in fourth grade. The students do scientific research on the Horny Toad lizard. They work with an outside mentor, and engage the farmers in the community to help them in collecting data. These students go about their day as if using GIS is nothing special … because it’s not! It’s simply a powerful tool that allows them to do research on their subject, and helps them prepare and present their findings to the school, the community, and the scientific world.



Fourth graders use GIS to collaborate in their research

The teacher (“Diane”) readily confesses that she is not nearly as good on the computers as her students are, but she also knows that she doesn’t need to be. She just needs to know how to choreograph the introduction, which she tackles with an outside mentor and with students from the previous year. The students pick up the technology with stunning speed, and use it to do significant geographic analysis, seeking patterns within the data about their critter.

With few resources beyond a mentor, a supportive principal, and a recognition that her students need to use GIS to integrate, analyze, and understand data in order to address important issues, Diane demonstrates the most critical attributes of a teacher today: a vision of a world that is evolving at lightning speed, and a passion to prepare kids to be good scholars, workers, and citizens who can build a better world, starting today.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, ESRI Schools Program

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Fun with GIS #40: GIS and EdReform

Over the last week, I have had the delightful opportunity to attend two events that speak to my interest in education reform: EAST (formerly formally “Environmental And Spatial Technologies”) and ASCD (formerly formally “Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development”).

At the annual conference for EAST, about 175 schools (all but a handful from Arkansas) showed up with 5-10 kids and a couple of adults. In the EAST model, students must conceive, plan, conduct, and report on activities that are tech-based and service-oriented. Kids handle most of their own instruction, and engage some pretty sophisticated technologies, including professional geographic information systems (GIS). The teachers are “facilitators,” in name and deed; they ask questions and help kids think strategically, but let the students do the “heavy lifting”. Because the tasks are their own, kids are hugely invested, and learn a vast amount of contextual knowledge, technology skills, and “soft skills” — research, collaboration, creative design, problem-solving, and communication.

This shows nicely in GIS. For the conference, ESRI hosts a competition, to which students submit projects. From this year’s submissions, six finalists were chosen; they presented to me for five minutes, and I asked them questions for five minutes. Students in grades 7-12 showed projects on topics like local bus routes, public safety, and community participation in school bond voting. Students had to grapple with generating data, integrating data from disparate sources, presenting complex information for the public to grasp quickly, and learning challenging tools. It was truly thrilling to see.

From EAST I went to ASCD, in order to present about the role of geography in 21st century education. At the conference, speaker after speaker, in sessions large and small, talked about what education should be, and how to get there. The commonalities were these: For students to engage most powerfully, teachers must let these digital natives co-create their learning experiences. Technology is a key part of their world, and educators should use that to advantage. Basic goals and bounds can be provided, but educators must engage the students where they are today. Students need to wrestle with finding information and making decisions about what is useful or not for a particular purpose. Students should integrate resources, in creative ways, working independently and collaboratively. They need to be challenged with important relevant choices, through which they can build contextual understanding, even melding disciplines. Students crave coaching, not lecturing. And they require positive role models of lifelong learners who will explore, attempt, stumble, and attempt again in a new direction.

It did my heart good to hear so many educators describing what are the processes of using GIS. We know that, in the hands of effective educators, GIS is a tool with exceptional capacity for improving education, for students of all ages. And it was thrilling to know that so many kids in at least one project are on a powerful educational course, building a better today, not waiting for tomorrow.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Co-Manager, ESRI Schools Program

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