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.

Tom Baker

About Tom Baker

Tom Baker is an Esri Education Manager, specializing in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, teacher education, and educational research. He regularly publishes and presents on geospatial technologies across education.
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