Fun with GIS 118: Seeds of STEM

Visiting schools is a rush! Last week, I watched students in three schools in two states use geospatial technology. Without exception, the students were anxious to explore, diving headlong into the maps, comparing here to there. A few showed projects they had created in the last month. The catch? All these students were from grades 3-6 (age 8-12). I worked with the TravelWise program at two schools in Utah, and Waterville (WA) school’s “Literate About Biodiversity” program built in conjunction with NatureMapping.

Fourth grade students (despite blinders installed for computer-based testing) collaborate on a measurement task.

I’m often asked “When can kids use GIS?” I’ve watched many young learners work with GIS tools and demonstrate more interest and intellectual capacity than shown by older learners. Working with ArcGIS Online and starting with a view of their immediate neighborhood, students in third grade have been able to point to parts of an image and translate them into elements and directions out the window. I’ve walked with third and even second graders as they held a GPS unit, told me how the devices record numbers, that these mean a specific place on earth that can be put on a map, and that they can then connect on the map things they see out in the field. I’ve watched as kids defined paths and measured distances, zoomed in and out for detail or context, and compared their paths with those of neighbors.

Third grade student drives the mouse from the teacher's desk (by lamp) while another directs the activity.

I’ve also watched learners in high school and beyond (including even teachers!) who were hard pressed to do the same. My view: “With an appropriate introduction to concepts and skills, learners of almost any age can use GIS in tasks that require spatial thinking and technological skill.” There may be a base of life experience and cognitive capacity required, and I’ve not spent as much time with second grade and younger, but third graders are definitely capable of doing serious tasks with GIS and GPS, grasping what they are doing, and articulating it.

Third grade student finds the established spot (pencil driven into ground) and verifies with GPS in advance of taking serial documentary photo.

So why are some older students and even teachers unable to do the same? Sadly, I suspect many have had their curiosity and creativity regulated into submission. Many of these older learners have been willing to follow prescribed steps to reach a supposed “correct response,” but, absent steps, were unable to generate a relevant question themselves or connect the exercise with any real meaning.

        Third grade student shares her project documenting the life cycle and migration of salmon.        

Of the many learning examples I get to watch, the most powerful emphasize personal interest. The best educators I watch are able to introduce topics and help students of all backgrounds see quickly how these relate to their lives. Then, students pursue short customized studies that build an expanding lattice of principles, facts, concepts, and skills with personal relevance. Students are encouraged to mix and match, stretch and discover, and even risk failure, as long as they keep looking.

Life doesn’t come with a handbook. Few jobs come with an absolute instruction set, finite facts to memorize, and no decisions to make. Few events in life require no grasp of relationships or capacity to note differences between things here and things over there. Kids need to build these frameworks, and can do so starting from a young age, with geotech. Young kids love critters, they understand the basics of their neighborhood, and they are naturally curious. As one of my mentors described it, “Educators need to reach in and grab students through their doors.” Young kids have substantial capacity for doing and learning; we plant the seeds of STEM early. If we can foster those, we will help the youth, our schools, our communities, and the planet alike, in the best way possible. But educators and — more important — the people who monitor and regulate them can also vaporize curiosity, creativity, and craftsmanship with frightening speed, if we let it happen.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, 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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