Monthly Archives: March 2012

Fun With GIS 114: Street Address Matching

Innovate. Adapt. Be entrepreneurial. In addition to everything else, students must exhibit these critical skills in the new world of work. So, too, must Esri. Web-based apps evolve especially quickly.

ArcGIS Online received new capacities last week. The Map Viewer app can now geocode points from US street addresses. (This has been possible within ArcGIS Explorer Online, but is new to Map Viewer.) With a simple but well-designed table containing street address, city, state, and ZIP Code, users in the US can push up as many as 250 points at a time into a map. If the table has additional attributes, those elements can be used for analysis, through custom classification and symbolization.

A new video lesson at ArcLessons demonstrates the capacity, using a data table from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Using a typical school district with 60 schools, it shows how the data can be downloaded as a spreadsheet, cleaned up minimally, and converted into points on a web map for subsequent analysis.

What can you do with this capacity? Map students in a grade, members in a troop, teams in a league, participants in a club, bus stops in a town, sponsors of an organization, or businesses with special features. Use the attributes to analyze and display special characteristics, pop a photo, or link to web sites.

There are new capacities beyond this, and more coming every few months. Check the ArcGIS Online blog regularly for updates. And consider how well you model for others the ability to innovate, adapt, and embrace change. This is what every worker in every career needs to consider: “How am I taking advantage of new capacity to do my job better?”

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri School Program Manager

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Exploring the History and Geography of Pittsburgh

The combination of maps and stories, particularly those that show how a city or region has changed over time, is a powerful resource for educators and students of history and geography, researchers, planners, and the general public. Thanks to Esri’s web GIS technologies, these tools are rapidly multiplying, providing a rich set of data to investigate an expanding number of places around the world. One of these is the new Pittsburgh Mapping and Historical Site Viewer.

This resource shows how Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania evolved over time, from 22,433 people in 1835 to a major metropolitan area. Explore it at a small scale to get an overview of the metropolitan area. From which point did the city originally begin? Why was its river site simultaneously a blessing to the city but also a danger? What challenges did the local hilly topography pose, and how did the city grow to accommodate it? Explore the site at a large, detailed scale, studying how neighborhoods grow and expand, and how some were planned but never built. Can you find any street names that changed over time? Can you find empty lots that became buildings, schools and churches that opened and closed, and where urban renewal project s cleared neighborhoods, and then later were themselves reconstructed?

By browsing through the years via a convenient slider bar at any given location, you will find a cemetery that became a school, the arrival of rail yards and then sports stadiums, and other indicators of how the city has evolved around changes in transportation, industry, and population. You will find photographs linked to specific landmarks and buildings with links to additional information. What was demolished to make way for the Civic Arena in 1961? What sports teams played there? Now that demolition on the arena has begun in 2012, what do you think the neighborhood will look like once it is gone?

This resource is largely the result of diligent and careful work by my Esri colleague Chris Olsen. Digital maps were made by cutting and georeferencing hand-drawn paper maps, some more than 175 years old. Chris first examined the wealth of data from the Historic Pittsburgh project, including 46 volumes of Hopkins maps, which he digitally stitched together and compared it to what is on the ground today. He downloaded the raw map plates, cleaned up each image, clipped out the map data, and georeferenced each plate in ArcMap, saving each to the Web Mercator Aux Sphere projection. He then created mosaic datasets grouped by area and year, created MXD and MSD documents using the overlay map at small scales, and switched to the mosaics at large scales. Next, he cached the maps and created the web apps. The feature service on top of the maps was created from the National Registry of Historic Places and the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. He is still adding additional content to these.

How can you use the Pittsburgh Mapping and Historical Site Viewer in your educational work?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Fun With GIS 113: PBL? Look EAST!

Stories of education woe abound. But good news exists, if you know where to look. Recently, I was privileged to attend two important events: the National Governors Association winter meeting and the annual conference of EAST Initiative.

At the NGA meeting, governors and audience heard a powerful presentation on the importance of entrepreneurship. Knowing how to engineer products is critical, said the speaker, but of limited value if not coupled with the ability to connect creation with user. When one governor asked why the US is not more successful getting students to complete school able to move into STEM-related jobs, the speaker replied (I’m paraphrasing here) “Our education systems may have worked in the past, but not anymore. What students need to do is projects, where they can engage deeply, take something from start to finish, learn how to do things that don’t have a clear right answer, and solve problems.”

At that point, I half-expected Governor Beebe from Arkansas to jump up and say “Come see what we have!” Had I sat closer, I’d have elbowed him to do so. Arkansas deserves attention for their project-based learning (PBL) program called EAST, for “Environmental And Spatial Technology.”

Last week, I was at the annual EAST conference. About 2000 students from around 200 schools gathered at a convention center to show what they had done, learn from each other, celebrate their collective efforts, and inspire each other to reach higher. Adults designed EAST and lead the overall program, and each school has a “facilitator” to oversee things, but most of the day-to-day work through the year, and much of the conference, is conceived, designed, led, and performed by students. The students are given license — and expectation — to explore, create, organize, evaluate, problem-solve, and present. They learn quickly that hurdles abound in the world, and they must figure out how to overcome them. All activities must benefit a community beyond just the engaged student/s, which means presenting a product to the “audience/ client/ customer.” ALL work must consider the needs and desires of the recipient from the outset.

EAST classes are most often in high school but range in age from early college down into early elementary. Going to conference is an “earned privilege” at most schools. And student work ranges from “a good start” to stunning.

As part of a broad suite of advanced technologies, all EAST schools have ArcGIS Desktop Advanced (“ArcInfo”) and extensions. Most EAST classes have a few students who engage more deeply in working with GPS and GIS. They learn enough to get underway, and continue learning “as needed.” Some students are just now beginning with ArcGIS Online; some have used ArcInfo for several years.

Esri hosted a “showcase competition” for GIS projects. Receiving honorable mentions were a community energy audit (7th graders from Harrisburg Middle School) and a community auto accident analysis (senior from Fayetteville High School). The winning project was a fabulous community storm water mapping project by seniors from Greenland High School, who completed for their town something that communities across the US must do.

The range of projects containing at least some GIS was impressive; the full range and quality of EAST projects is, in a word, stunning … like the kids themselves. Telling observation: hotels are more excited to have EAST Conference show up than to see school or college sporting events, even though EAST kids vastly outnumber adults. In a decade of attending such events, I have yet to hear my first word spoken in anger. But I hear “May I show you …” and “How did you …” constantly. These are kids excited about at least some of their school experience. In its history, EAST has served 150,000 kids.

PBL is not easy for teachers and administrators to adopt quickly. It is not how most educators were schooled, and it is not easily supported by current policies which value precisely defined machine-scoreable metrics following a prescribed sequence of uniform experiences. But life is not like that. As the NGA speaker indicated, PBL can foster kids engaging in education more deeply; help them learn practical skills and integrate learning; allow them to explore, create, stumble, fail, revise, and move beyond; and keep them as an integral part of the community instead of apart from it.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Schools Program Manager

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STEM Education’s Critical Dependence on GIS

Dr. Jonathan Wai’s recent article in Psychology Today takes a frank look at the role and value of spatial thinking in mainstream education today. While he provides a consumer-level overview in “Why Don’t We Value Spatial Intelligence?” he and colleagues take a much deeper dive in their Journal of Educational Psychology longitudinal study of 400,00+ students, “Spatial Ability for STEM Domains”.

The punch line in both pieces is simply, “spatial ability plays a critical role in developing expertise in STEM and suggest[s], among other things, that including spatial ability in modern talent searches would identify many adolescents with potential for STEM who are currently being missed” (p 817).

Wai et al argue that there is still very little spatial thinking in educational curricula today, especially in STEM education, where it’s needed most – despite decades of findings and recommendations to overtly include spatial thinking in curricula and assessments.


A few years ago, the National Research Council set about formalizing its recommendations for spatial thinking in education. The volume, “Learning to think spatially” advocated strongly for the use of GIS across subject areas to strengthen spatial thinking skills in all students. While several recommendations emerged from this report, the underlying message was loud and clear “GIS dramatically fosters spatial thinking in students”.

It seems pretty straight-forward to me.

GIS can be a powerful tool for developing spatial thinking and spatial thinking is a critical skill to be identified and nurtured for STEM students and future STEM careers. GIS can help STEM students become successful STEM professionals, not only through continued development of spatial thinking skills but also by supporting critical thinking, curiosity, collaboration, and communication!

- Tom Baker, Esri Education Manager

See also:

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Fun With GIS 112: Happy Spreadsheeting

Ever had a data table misbehave? Many of us have asked and answered questions about operations that don’t behave as expected. Often, the reason is the source data. People who want to map and analyze data can fall prey to missteps in a spreadsheet when creating the data.

A new lesson in ArcLessons is designed to help users who are new to working with data tables and GIS. The arrival of drag-and-drop mapping and easy analysis on the web has opened new worlds to many. The hidden challenges of data creation can lead to disillusionment, if proper care is not taken when creating data.

Look at this little excerpt from the one-page document and see how many challenges you can find with just this table as might be collected by students in a group. What tweaks would you make to turn this into “good data?” What steps would you take before gathering data?

What are your “best practices with data”? Sign in here, or on the “GIS in School Instruction” page on Facebook, and leave a note.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Schools Program Manager

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Communicating Messages about GIS & Geography

Recently I wrote four blog essays for Hodder Education in the United Kingdom. These essays, posted on Hodder’s Education site, comprise some of the core elements of what I believe about GIS and geography in education. Hodder is active in the geography education community and it was a pleasure to work with their staff, now and a few years ago when they published a book that I co-authored, entitled Essentials of the Environment.

In the first essay, “Everyday Geography,” I describe the daily Tweets, Facebook posts, and videos I create and the reasons for creating them. I know I am not alone in my passion for geography and spatial analysis and therefore sought in the essay to encourage other educators to be more forthcoming about telling others about the good work they are doing. Now more than ever, administrators, policymakers, and the general public needs to hear how and why teaching spatial analysis through GIS is relevant to 21st Century education and society.

My second essay attempts to reconnect geography and environmental education through common themes such as scale, sustainability, and human-environment interaction, issues from energy to water to natural hazards, and methods including the collection of primary data through fieldwork.

In the third essay, “examining changes in your local community,” I discuss the importance of studying our dynamic planet from a local to global scale, showing how educators can compare historical to current satellite imagery and digital maps in a GIS environment such as ArcGIS Online to examine change over time and space.

In the fourth essay, I describe why GIS is a critical tool in education, fostering inquiry, deep thinking, research skills, ability to work with data, and key workforce skills. The workforce skills extend beyond disciplinary boundaries in geography, biology, or history, to the skills of being organized, ethical, and having the ability to communicate.

If you had to write four essays to encapsulate what you believe are important about GIS and geography in education, what would you write? What in particular strikes you as important in these blog essays? What important elements am I leaving out?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Fun With GIS 111: Swiping Stories

Good educators share and scavenge insatiably. People develop strategies, then we adopt and adapt, and pass ideas to others. One huge joy of life at Esri is learning from colleagues who love to design, tweak, and share. The StoryMaps team has built an archive of riveting stories using ArcGIS Online. With a little text and carefully crafted web-based maps engaging diverse techniques, they entice the viewer to explore, deeply. The latest storymap looks at how humans have reshaped the earth, at the macro scale, as witnessed by Landsat and imagery. It is a fascinating, if frightening, display.


Click to see the Storymaps page, then choose an investigation.

But as important as the content in these stories are the techniques. Different stories employ different methods; even when a technique is re-used, it gets a new spin. Best news: each strategy is documented. The latest story uses a “swiping” technique, allowing the reader to slide a divider back and forth between two different views of a single area, highlighting “before/after” or “A/B” conditions. After seeing how humans have reshaped the earth, I wanted to learn this swiping technique to support teaching about watersheds.

Months ago, I built a map called “USA Waters for Schools.” It has scale-dependent watersheds, rivers, and streams, across the U.S. But I wanted to try the swiping technique to help learners follow local landforms. Using guidance from the storymap, I built a test web page with two different maps. My first attempt was ugly, confusing, and ineffective, for several reasons.

But just by swapping in a simpler version of the USA Waters map, showing only terrain, the view is improved, allowing the learner to focus on the specifics of water flowing downhill (not necessarily south) and hierarchies of watersheds draining basins to a common zone.


Click to launch this application on ArcGIS Online.

Different techniques are needed for different tasks and conditions. Visit the Storymap zone each week for their new story, and see what you can pick up in both content and technique. These presentations demonstrate what developers are doing, in all kinds of industries, to build map-centric content for infinitely varied audiences and purposes. It requires understanding of the subject matter, the technology, communication strategies, and clear grasp of the users’ needs. This is where new careers engaging GIS are launching daily.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Schools Program Manager

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Integrating Technology with Meaningful Learning

David Jonassen (1995) described seven qualities of meaningful learning with technology. They are: active, constructive, collaborative, intentional, conversational, contextualized, and reflective. These are valuable not only to keep in mind when teaching with GIS, but to be purposeful, asking before each class, “How can I be active in my teaching with GIS today?” “How can I be conversational?” and so on.

Those I know who teach with GIS are good examples of putting these qualities into practice. Their teaching is never just for the technology’s sake, even when it is with the goal of increasing the students’ GIS skills for career readiness. They teach in context and with a purpose, asking students to reflect on problem-solving, data, scale, critical thinking, and more. Jonassen and others make a strong case for the value of situated learning, or learning in context, which is exactly what teaching with GIS entails.

Jonassen’s three assumptions about technology are also instructive. These include the following:

  • Technology is more than hardware; it consists of the designs that engage learners.
  • Learning technology is any environment of a definable set of activities that engages learners in knowledge construction.
  • Knowledge construction is not supported by technologies used as conveyors of instruction that prescribe and control all learner interactions. Rather, technologies support knowledge construction better when they are need-driven or talk-driven, learner-initiated, and when interactions with the technologies are conceptually and intellectually engaging.

Technologies as toolkits enable learners to build more meaningful personal interpretations and representations of the world.

According to Jonassen, learners and technologies should be “intellectual partners”, an intriguing concept in which the cognitive responsibilities for performing are distributed by the part of the partnership that performs it best. Let’s say you are studying the relationship between elevation and rainfall on the windward and leeward sides of mountains. Calculating how much rainfall occurs at different elevations and on the western versus the eastern sides of the mountains through overlay would be something you would let the GIS software do. But your final assessment that incorporates multimedia and a presentation relies more heavily on your own input and reflection—not something that the software can do. This is one of my favorite things about teaching and learning with GIS. The software is the enabler and the GIS user provides the solution.

How are you incorporating elements of Jonassen’s seven qualities in your own GIS-based instruction?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager


Jonassen, David H. 1995. Supporting communities of learners with technology: A vision for integrating technology with learning in schools. Educational Technology. July-August, pp. 60-63.

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