Monthly Archives: December 2011

Eight Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab: Connections to GIS Education, Part 1 of 2

Seymour Papert, considered by many to be one of the leading figures in the field of educational technology, outlined what he named “The Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Laboratory.” This technology-rich center was housed at The Maine Youth Center.

The first big idea is learning by doing. Papert says, “We all learn better when learning is part of doing something we find really interesting, and when we learn to make something we really want.” That’s one of the things I like most about teaching and learning with GIS—it is action-oriented by its very nature. One has to sort, select, organize, digitize, add fields, overlay, run spatial statistics, investigate, symbolize, and a myriad of other activities, when using GIS. Take a look at this video of the activity in a typical GIS lab as evidence of the active nature of using this technology.

The second big idea is “technology as building material.” Papert says, “If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things.” I think of the countless times that educators and students have beamed when pointing at their GIS output—it is a map that they made, and they are rightly proud of it! But they don’t rest there—they are usually soon building on that map to make others, or to apply what they learned to another problem.

The third big idea is “hard fun.” “We learn best and we work best if we enjoy what we are doing. But fun and enjoying doesn’t mean “easy.” The best fun is hard fun.” None of us in the GIS education field sugar-coat GIS by saying every part of spatial analysis is easy. It often is quite difficult. We say to educators, “allow yourself to walk before you run” when learning GIS. That’s one reason the network of people in the GIS field is so important—we need each other to help us through the difficulties of grappling with putting what we want to do into the language that a GIS can understand.

I will reflect on the connections to GIS of the rest of Papert’s ideas in my next blog entry.

Do you model these ideas in your own GIS instruction?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Bicentennial of the New Madrid Earthquakes: Seismic Calamity along the Mississippi



On December 16, 1811 a violent earthquake shattered a winter night along the Mississippi River Valley in an area of present-day northeast Arkansas. While the region was sparsely settled at the time, the local European and Native American inhabitants were being introduced to what would only be the beginning of a nightmarish winter framed by the mid-December occurrence, followed by another main event in late January, and an even more fierce temblor in early February centered outside the village of New Madrid in the Bootheel of present-day Missouri. The community was effectively destroyed, while in St. Louis, over 150 miles upriver, houses were severely damaged with chimneys crashing down. All of the principal shocks were felt far to the east with amazing reports coming from cities as far away as Boston and Toronto. In between and into the spring, numerous aftershocks were triggered and felt. Together, these were the largest earthquakes to have occurred since European settlement east of the Rocky Mountains in the US and Canada.

I grew up near this region and have experienced first-hand what can happen in this seismically active area. A few years ago, I created a blog series and a map project using ArcGIS Explorer Desktop to examine some aspects of the region. My work then was triggered by a sizeable event in the spring of 2008 in southern Illinois. Today’s blog post draws a bit from that series but its main purpose is to highlight a new map I’ve been building using ArcGIS Explorer Online, a growing array of map services found in ArcGIS Online, and some CSV files I crafted and added to my map. Not surprising, the map is focused on the Bicentennial of the New Madrid Earthquakes.

Rather than describe the specifics of what the map contains, I have instead added that information as “metadata” and discussion at the map’s storage location in ArcGIS Online, as well as links to some USGS resources. Here’s a mini-URL that you can share, www.esriurl.com/NewMadrid. Once you are at the site, open the map in either the default option, Explorer Online, or the ArcGIS.com mapviewer. Also, rather than take you on a guided tour, here instead are a couple of screenshots of what you’ll discover.

Historical earthquakes and recent events


Historical earthquakes and nearby populated places


Please feel free to augment what I have done and save your own version of the map by logging in with your Esri Global Account, doing a “save as,” and share the new map. If you do craft your version, be sure to add your own description and other information for other users.

Also, remember the New Madrid Seismic Zone and similar zones in the Central US are active. Be sure to examine current population densities in these areas to begin to understand the human risk in a region not immediately recognized as a hazardous area.

Lastly, stay tuned for an Esri Map Story on this topic later this week.

- George Dailey, Co-Manager, Esri Education Program Manager

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Fun with GIS #101: Building an Analytical Story with ArcGIS Online

“Easy analytical maps!” That’s ArcGIS Online. Ready access to a dozen great basemaps, hundreds of high quality operational layers, and your own data (point tables, GPS data, KMLs, shape files, or just ad hoc data) makes it easy to assemble content.

It helps to think about your audience when producing maps for others. Are they comfortable coping with lots of data with sometimes confusing names, or do they need greater clarity? Will they want and know how to change contents? Can they interact with layers and do their own exploration in the manner you seek, or will they do better with a story that you construct for them? ArcGIS Online lets you turn off or configure pop-ups, tweak attribute names and display, integrate dynamic tables or charts or queries, and even construct a step-by-step guided presentation.

A new silent video shows a quick example (not even 8 minutes, realtime) of starting from scratch, changing a basemap, adding a shapefile, customizing popups, choosing a classification scheme, and saving the file in MapViewer, then opening it in ArcGIS Explorer Online to add a dashboard gadget and build and show a presentation. After watching the video you can practice the demonstrated processes yourself with the very same shapefile.



Combining the processes in this movie with the capacity to enhance a shapefile detailed in “Fun with GIS#93: Mapping External Data via ArcGIS Online” means enormous analytical capacity is at your fingertips.

Looking at images is easy. Being analytical is powerful, and where the jobs are.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Everyday Geography: 365 Reflections on Why Geography Matters


This year, beginning on New Year’s Day, as president of the National Council for Geographic Education, I wrote one tweet everyday beginning with “What is Geography? 1 of 365” and posted them to my Twitter page [All Esri Education Twitter pages]. Today I am already up to “What is Geography 340 of 365” and will soon finish the year’s series. OK, I confess that I actually posted multiple posts every day, sometimes up to 10. There is just so much on this topic to write about!

My goals in the series were several. First, I sought to point out as organization president how the NCGE serves the geography education community, and has been doing so since 1915. Through its webinars, book and journal publications, annual conference, curriculum, research, partnerships, and networking opportunities, the NCGE supports excellence in teaching and learning geography. Second, I wanted to provide evidence of the diversity of geography. Those outside the geographic community might have an incomplete or even erroneous view of geography as a discipline. I wanted to nudge people beyond thinking of geography only as the location of things, to provide an idea what geographers study and what they care about. I explored themes of scale, patterns, and relationships, topics such as watersheds, energy, ecoregions, climate, and population density, and discussed different regions while on work travel to Salzburg Austria, San Francisco, New York City, San Diego, Minneapolis, and elsewhere. Geography is diversity in people, landscapes, issues, skills, and themes.

Third, I aimed to show that geography is a high-tech and rigorous discipline that uses everything from scientific probes that measure soil moisture, weather conditions, or water quality, to surveying equipment, to GPS, to remote sensing imagery, to GIS, and much more. I created numerous videos that demonstrated how GIS can be used for teaching and research. Geography uses quantitative techniques such as through spatial statistics as well as qualitative methods. Fourth, I wanted to show that geography is fun. I included links to videos of me discussing geography while skiing down a ski slope, in the middle of a wind farm, on a street median in Manhattan, kayaking on the St Croix River, touching the K-T boundary in Red Rocks Park, and in other fascinating places. Fifth, I sought to show that geography is a rich body of content, a specific set of skills and abilities, and a way of seeing the world—a spatial perspective.

Sixth, above everything else, I sought to show that geography matters. As we must grapple with complex global issues that increasingly affect our everyday lives, such as sustainable development, energy, water, natural hazards, political instability, and food security, the study and application of geography is more relevant to our world than ever before. GIS is a fundamental tool that can help us understand and solve problems related to these issues. Those applying the geographic perspective can and are making a positive impact on people and the planet.

I hope my postings were helpful to educators and even to the general public. How might you use these postings, and your own postings and activities, to demonstrate to the wider community that geography matters?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Fun with GIS #100: Getting Started

“How do I start?” That’s what people ask before beginning to take pictures, play a musical instrument, drive a new type of vehicle, swim, or use GIS in education. For the latter, my advice is simple: ArcGIS Online. Students and teachers alike can begin making interesting maps in seconds with ArcGIS Online. New options can be discovered and practiced easily, building thinking skills, technical capacity, and background knowledge.

When making a map, one’s first instinct is usually “Let me see where I live.” Imagery is a useful starting point, because it looks familiar, and ArcGIS Online offers two different imagery basemaps so, right away, one can explore and ask questions about differences in “look.” But imagery alone is insufficient; one needs to add landmarks, labels, and “thematic descriptors.” With ArcGIS Online, it is easy to engage professionally prepared reference and analytical data with which to enhance contemplation of a broad range of topics and questions.

Such mapmaking builds the most essential capacities for understanding the world: locational awareness, pattern recognition, and a sense of data. Being an effective baseball player is not simply a matter of throwing, catching, and hitting a round object; it requires a sense of the game, the landscape, the rules. Using GIS requires a sense of the world local to global, a grasp of diverse elements in different places, the ways these can be represented and melded, and how the data can be analyzed. But using GIS doesn’t just require these, it also fosters them. With ArcGIS Online, learners from elementary school on up can quickly merge basemaps, operational layers, and personal data to represent and analyze phenomena. The concepts supported by these skills are essential for doing any more technologically complex geographic analysis, such as working with ArcGIS Desktop.

Educators getting started have a special opportunity — a free short online class designed just for you! You can do it in an evening and have time left over to figure out how to modify the next day’s class. See “Teaching with GIS: Intro to Using GIS in the Classroom.”

For educators and mentors who want to help students use GIS, start with ArcGIS Online. Emphasize maps of personal relevance, and encourage analysis — classification, symbolization by attribute, selection by rule — to clarify patterns and relationships. Promote investment with projects requiring research; foster critical thinking via frequent construction and analysis of one’s own data; maximize feedback with collaborative work; and use presentation to peers and others for both instruction and inspiration.

When students — or educators — grasp the power of geographic thinking and careful analysis of spatial data, they have the fundamentals in place to support a move into more robust technologies. Getting a good start, with an appropriate first step, goes a long way to making any mission a success.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences: Connections to GIS Education

The National Research Council (NRC) has created a landmark report entitled Understanding the Changing Planet: Strategic Directions for the Geographical Sciences, which I believe has key implications for GIS education. Under the auspices of the NRC, the project was co-sponsored by the US National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, the Association of American Geographers, and the US Geological Survey. Particularly insightful readings are Dr Michael Gould’s article about GIScience grand challenges and Dr Dawn Wright’s interview about the NRC report. The charge to the committee of geographers was to formulate a short list of high-priority research questions that are relevant to societal needs. The 11 resulting questions are squarely centered on many of the key issues of the 21st Century. I also believe that they fundamentally support what the GIS education community has been engaged in these past 20 years. The report can be effectively used as a means of communicating why it is vital that GIS education and GIS in education must be supported, nurtured, and strengthened throughout the educational system. But it is up to us, the GIS education community, to make the ties between our work and the NRC report clear and well known.

The 11 questions deemed “high priority” are as follows:

A. How to understand and respond to environmental change:
1. How are we changing the physical environment of Earth’s surface?
2. How can we best preserve biological diversity and protect endangered ecosystems?
3. How are climate and other environmental changes affecting the vulnerabilities of coupled human-environment systems?

B. How to promote sustainability:
4. Where and how will 10 billion people live?
5. How will we sustainably feed everyone in the coming decade and beyond?
6. How does where we live affect our health?

C. How to recognize and cope with the rapid spatial reorganization of economy and society:
7. How is the movement of people, goods, and ideas changing the world?
8. How is economic globalization affecting inequality?
9. How are geopolitical shifts influencing peace and stability?

D. How to leverage technological change for the benefit of society and environment:
10. How might we better observe, analyze, and visualize a changing world?
11. What are the societal implications of citizen mapping and mapping citizens?

Space does not permit me to discuss all of the linkages between this list and GIS education, but I submit that every one of these questions is tied to what and how we teach with GIS. In addition, the very reason GIS was created was to better observe, analyze, and visualize our world (question 10). Modeling, predicting, and managing change over time and space is what GIS enables people to do easily and effectively. Spatial analysis is critical to understanding environmental change, population and resource pressure, geopolitics and trade, and to promoting best practices and sustainable population, habitat, energy, and much more. As this list and report make clear, GIS is more relevant to society as never before.

How might you use the Understanding the Changing Planet report to communicate the importance of your work in GIS education?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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