Monthly Archives: December 2007

Spatial Thinking: Fundamental to Problem Solving

GIS is comprised of software, hardware, spatial data, procedures or methods, and, most important of all—people.  It is the person who turns spatial data into spatial knowledge, who communicates that knowledge to others so that more informed decisions can be made.  The GIS education community is concerned about spatial thinking because it is the spatially literate person who can make the most out of GIS analyses.  One can build fine models with accurate spatial data, but without spatial thinking, the results won’t be fully seen for what they are, and the information will not be transferred as effectively. 

Therefore, along with nurturing GIS skills, we must encourage spatial thinking as fundamental to all GIS analysis.  We often must teach some basic concepts if we hope to have students grapple with advanced spatial problems.  For example, I recently had university students locate a fire tower using a digital elevation model (DEM), land cover, hydrology, and roads.  Many of the students didn’t grasp the problem because they didn’t understand what a DEM was, or even how elevation was represented.  We then spent time working with topographic maps and isolines.  The students were products of a K-12 education system where they were lucky to have a geography class way back in Grade 7.  Take advantage of these teachable moments to teach spatial concepts and skills, even in advanced courses.

It is also critical that we encourage students to think holistically and spatially about problems with which they are grappling while using GIS software and skills.  Sometimes, students review available tools, and then frame the problem accordingly.  This could result in a narrow view of the problem.  Encourage them to think about the whole problem first, and then model how they will use GIS to help them address it.  Encourage them also to think beyond the software.  Spatial analysis preceded GIS, and some analytical methods are better combined with other tools.  Use GIS as one of what could be several analytical tools for effective decision making.

- Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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Spatial Thinking—The Whys of Where

The most important question that a spatial thinker asks is not “where”, but “why?”  “Where” by itself is important, but to stop there cuts short spatial thinking and subsequent spatial analysis.  At its best, “where” by itself is a scaffold upon which we can hang other geographic knowledge and build skills.  At its worst, “where” by itself is the place-name, capes-and-bays memorization that makes geographers twitchy.  To nurture spatial thinking, we must couple the “where’ with “why.” 

One way to illustrate these thoughts about spatial thinking is to examine the following photograph, and ask “What’s wrong with this picture?”

The spatial thinker looks at the world in spatial terms, inquiring about the “whys of where.”  I was once invited to speak at North Carolina State University.  Upon my arrival, the above scene immediately struck me as odd, prompting me to take a photograph.  Why would stadium bleachers be looking out over a parking lot?  The spatial thinker also thinks temporally, realizing that spatial objects change over time.  One logical conclusion was that the parking lot had been built upon a former athletic field.  When was this done?  What will it look like in the future?  The situation suggests that it won’t be long until the bleachers are torn down.

Why was the athletic field paved?  Was the campus expanding, and hence the need for additional parking?  Was campus expansion related to national trends, population growth in the region, or because of a particular NCSU program suddenly was in higher demand?  If the field was not protected as a historical site, why not?  Was a new stadium built elsewhere? 

Yet we must not stop at “where” with “why”—we must also consider the “how.”  How was the decision made whereby a parking lot was deemed more important than an athletic field?  What is the best way to test these hypotheses?  Incorporate another “how” through methods:   Gather field data through maps and through interviews on campus! 

These considerations represent one more way of conceptualizing spatial thinking.

- Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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Register for the 2008 ESRI Education User Conference

 ESRI is pleased to invite you to the eighth annual ESRI Education User Conference (ESRI EdUC). The conference is designed to help you discover opportunities for integrating spatial thinking in your classroom, lab, library, museum, or administrative office. Regardless of your GIS experience, if you are interested in brightening the future of education with GIS, you will want to attend this special event.

 The deadline to register is June 13, 2008. If you have any questions regarding registration, please contact Jennifer Quirong or call 909-793-2853, extension 1-2371. Register to attend.

  Please make your hotel reservations early. A limited number of special group-rate rooms are guaranteed through July 1, 2008, or until the room block sells out. Space is already filling up quickly. See the hotel list.

 The ESRI EdUC coincides with the 2008 ESRI International User Conference. Complimentary registrations apply to educational institutions with campus or district site licenses. Please contact your site license administrator for details. Contact Chrissy Tveten or call 909-793-2853, extension 1-3743.

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English town wants off the map

There was an interesting story on
All Things Considered last week about an English town that wants to be removed
from GPS databases and street maps. 
As the popularity of in-car navigation systems and web sites such as
Mapquest and GoogleMaps has risen, traffic has increased because these systems
route trucks through the town as a shortcut.  The problem is the town has narrow roads
and the large trucks create traffic problems and have damaged buildings and cars
when trying to make turns that are too tight.


The full story is available from
the NPR

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Spatial Thinking: Habits of Mind

Spatially literate people should have an understanding of spatial concepts and have spatial skills attached to their tool belts. However, there is more to a spatially literate person. According to the National Academy of Sciences report Learning To Think Spatially, spatially literate people should also have the “habit of mind” of thinking spatially, knowing where, when, how, and why to think spatially.

Most people I know in the spatial learning and geotechnology education communities fit this characteristic to a “T.” They seem to know why to think spatially, because they seek opportunities to advocate the importance of thinking spatially beyond education into society. They seem to know how to think spatially, do so from many viewpoints, and do so throughout the day: When reading a map of airline routes in an in-flight magazine, they may consider network analysis, regional transportation, and tourism’s impact on the environment. When the buds burst forth on trees, they may ponder the effect of latitude, altitude, and climate on the speed of the arrival of spring. When looking at a menu, they may speculate about diffusion and how restaurant franchises decide in which cities to locate. When going hiking, they may mark waypoints with their GPS, take photographs, make sketches, thinking about how the landscape has changed in the past and how it will change in the future.

How did the spatial and geotechnology education community develop these habits of mind? Many claim that since childhood, they have always loved maps, geography, or both. Childhood vacations and exploring a vacant lot over the fence may have served to bolster this affinity. However, in most cases, a primary or secondary school class or university program of study has nurtured this love into a lifelong way of thinking and acting. Therefore, educators have an important job of inspiring students, the decision-makers of tomorrow, to think spatially—and not just in their GIS or geography classes, but throughout their days and throughout their lives. Yes, educators have the opportunity to shape these “habits of mind!”

- Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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New Download for AEJEE

A new version is available for ESRI’s free, downloadable, dual platform, lightweight GIS tool, ArcExplorer Java Edition for Education (AEJEE). The latest version is 2.3.2, and is especially useful for those on MacOS previous to 10.4; this latest version engages whatever is the latest Java version on the computer, without requiring a Java update. Go to the Help menu on AEJEE and choose “About” to ensure you are running AEJEE 2.3.2.

CAUTION: It is always wisest to move important files, such as user-created data, to a special folder outside the installation folder before uninstalling. Do that before uninstalling your existing version of AEJEE and installing this version! Best success in installing new versions of any software (including AEJEE) comes from following a process of “save data, uninstall old version, reboot, install new version, reboot again, test new version.”

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, ESRI Education Manager

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Spatial Thinking: Concepts and Skills

As the National Academy of Sciences Learning To Think Spatially report recommended, the spatial thinking that we must encourage is an “informed spatial thinking.”  In other words, rather than a vague notion that “where things are is important”, students must understand spatial concepts, such as the interconnectedness of elevation with ecoregion zonation, relative and absolute distance, map projections, and Earth-Sun relationships.  They must also understand spatial representations, beyond maps, to diagrams, globes, and satellite imagery.  They must be able to use spatial skills in problem-solving contexts.

Geographer Reg Golledge identifies important spatial skills and understandings in many of his writings.  One must be able to translate from one dimension to another, as in creating a two-dimensional map from a 3-D Earth.  One must understand the differences between distance properties, such as adjacency, proximity, similarity, nearest neighbor, crow-fly distance, and “over-the-road” distance.  One must comprehend orientation and direction, including compass bearings, angular bearings, and clock-face (the tower is at two-o’clock from our trail’s heading”) directions.  A spatially skilled person understands frames of reference, such as latitude/longitude, UTM, street numbering systems, and national grids.  That person recognizes geographic associations, such as the connection between downhill snow skiing and mountains and the relative lack of cities in desert areas versus a denser pattern in agricultural areas.  The spatially skilled person must understand regions-everything from census tracts, police precincts, and school districts, up to ecoregions, production areas, countries, and biomes.

Golledge points out that “if you understand the spatial concepts that are part of nearly every facet of everyday life-from using spatial principles when packing the trunk of your car for a family vacation to walking safely out to the kitchen sink in the middle of the night without turning on the lights-you are thinking spatially.”  Indeed.  How can you help students transfer everyday spatial thinking into an informed spatial thinking, so that they can grapple with the important issues of our time, from biodiversity to energy to epidemics?  How can you use GIS to do so?

- Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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Holiday and New Year’s Reading…and an Exhibit Too

Just in time for the holidays…whether you are shopping for colleagues, family, friends, or yourself…here is a quartet of new and recent books that explore cartography, history, civilization, and humanity’s place in the cosmos.

Maps: Finding Our Place in the World is both the title of a new book and a very ambitious exhibition currently on display at the Field Museum in Chicago through late January 2008. The book, while not exactly a companion to the exhibit, does an excellent job of bringing the reader into a very broad world of mapping, map function, and cartographic thought. Editors James Akerman and Robert Karrow of the Newberry Library have brought together an excellent team of authors.

Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations is a rich coffee-table book of cartographic delights drawn from the more than 5 million maps and 72,000 atlases in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress. It presents 200 influential maps spanning different times and cultures with accompanying narratives. Author Vincent Virga and the Library of Congress are to be commended for sharing this important geographic content.

The Fabric of America: How Our Borders and Boundaries Shaped the Country and Forged Our National Identity is in some ways a follow-on to Andro Linklater’s earlier book Measuring America: How an Untamed Wilderness Shaped the United States and Fulfilled the Promise of Democracy. Here the story revolves around the importance and impacts of placing boundaries on wide open American spaces. The author’s narrative weaves together a compelling storyline and key characters.

Walking Zero: Discovering Cosmic Space and Time along the Prime Meridian is a blend of travelogue, geography and science story, and meditation. Noted science writer, Chet Raymo, sets out on a personal expedition along an imaginary line—the Prime Meridian in Eastern England. In the course of his journey, he recounts his discoveries and seeks to explore how we understand our place in the cosmos.

- George Dailey, ESRI Education Manager

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Converting MrSID Images for Use in AEJEE

As a free, downloadable, dual platform, lightweight GIS tool, ArcExplorer Java Edition for Education (AEJEE) does not have all the horsepower of ArcView, which can sometimes be discouraging. For instance, many GIS shops distribute fabulous imagery as MrSID files. But, because the Apple version of Java does not yet read these files, AEJEE also does not. However, all is not lost!

Several companies distribute tools that allow you to read MrSID files and export them as other file types. LizardTech ( offers several tools, including one for Macintosh, which allows the export of a TIF image with an associated world file. Works great!

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, ESRI Education Manager

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