Mastering Spatial Thinking through Web Mapping

Teaching spatial thinking concepts and their practical application through hands-on exploration prepares today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs. 

Spatial thinking is identifying, analyzing, and understanding the location, scale, patterns, and trends of the geographic and temporal relationships among data, phenomena, and issues.  Spatial thinking helps us better understand our world and solve the tough problems we face today.

Geo-technologies—which include geographic information systems (GIS), remote sensing, global positioning systems (GPS), and web mapping—are the way we apply spatial thinking concepts to our everyday lives.  In 2004, the US Department of Labor identified three rapidly growing fields for the 21st Century: Nanotechnology, biotechnology, and geo-technology. Teaching the concepts of spatial thinking and the use of geo-technologies to today’s students is important because it’s where the jobs are—and will continue to be in the future.

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Geo-technologies combine maps, satellite images, 2D and 3D representations of the landscape, databases, tools, and procedures to allow for spatial relationships to be quantified and analyzed. Like other modern information technologies (such as Dropbox, Google Drive, Salesforce, Infinite Campus, and others), geo-technologies are rapidly evolving into a cloud-based software-as-a-service model, and web-based mapping tools are a perfect way to learn and apply the basics of spatial thinking.

Because some problems are local in nature, you sometimes need to gather your own data in the field using probes, GPS receivers, and smartphones.

As geo-educators, we need to provide today’s students with the foundations and skills to understand spatial concepts through the use of web mapping geo-technologies. This is best done by exploring and applying relevant research principles to understand what spatial thinking is and why and how to use it in the real world. These principles can be applied through the use of web mapping tools to build an exciting learning environment.

Mastering spatial thinking and web mapping means that students will be equipped to:

  • Define spatial thinking and geo-technologies, and understand their relevance to education and society.
  • Understand how to use web mapping tools to analyze issues, patterns, relationships, and trends on a variety of topics including population, health, natural hazards, ecoregions, agriculture, land use, energy, and water. The tools are applied across different time periods, and at scales from local to global to teach a variety of disciplines in an effective, dynamic manner.
  • Understand how to map field-collected data using web mapping tools.

So how can you get started?

Building Foundations.  Applying spatial thinking requires thinking about maps, about the earth, and about spatial relationships in a unique and deliberate way. Educators need to provide students with the foundations of spatial thinking and why it is valuable. The focus should be on using it to foster critical thinking, drive inquiry, encourage community connections, build career pathways, and foster learning across a variety of subjects

Learning Key Skills.  Applying spatial thinking to education requires the use of easy-to-use, yet powerful new geo-technologies, including the creation of dynamic web maps, and understanding the types of spatial data and tools currently available. The focus should be on how to use web mapping platforms to analyze a variety of issues from local to global scale, including population change, ecoregions and biomes, energy, water, human health, land use, and business.

Solving Problems.  Solving problems is the very reason why geo-technologies were developed. Because some problems are local in nature, you sometimes need to gather and map your own data or use real-time online data. It’s important to understand how to gather your own data in the field using probes, GPS receivers, and smartphones, how to access real-time online data, and on how to map that data with online web mapping tools. It’s also important to learn how to communicate the results of your research by combining audio, video, photographs, and text with live web maps.

Hands-on Skill Building in Geo-technologies

A number of powerful web mapping and related tools are now available for educators.  The way to build familiarity and confidence in using these tools is through hands-on activities. Hands-on student activities should address themes such as considerations of scale in patterns and processes, interpreting maps and analyzing topographic, thematic, satellite imagery, and tabular data, and understanding and explaining the implications of associations, networks, and interconnections among people, places, and phenomena.

Ultimately, teaching spatial thinking and its practical applications through hands-on exploration will better prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs and help shape a sustainable future for us all.

Joseph Kerski

About Joseph Kerski

Joseph Kerski is a geographer who believes that spatial analysis through digital mapping can transform education and society through better decision-making using the geographic perspective. He serves on the Esri education team and is active in GIS communication and outreach, creates GIS-based curriculum, conducts research in the effectiveness of GIS in education, teaches online and face-to-face courses on spatial thinking and analysis, and fosters partnerships to support GIS in formal and informal education at all levels, internationally. He is the co-author of Spatial Mathematics, The Essentials of the Environment, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data, and other books. Follow him on Twitter @josephkerski
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