Monthly Archives: May 2012

Fostering Spatial Thinking Through Paper Maps and Aerials

Those of us on the Esri Education Team have dedicated our careers to promoting and supporting the use of GIS and spatial thinking in education to enhance teaching and learning and to have a positive impact on society. We believe that Esri GIS tools are some of the best means available to fostering spatial thinking and prepare students for 21st Century decision making. Yet we are frequently asked what non-software activities are effective in fostering spatial thinking. Thousands indoor and outdoor activities, games, and lessons serve as excellent resources to prepare students to use GIS and also are excellent where no access to the Internet or software exists. Indeed, one of my favorite stories from the recent International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS in Secondary Schools book I co-edited came from South Africa, where students studied issues in their community and country using paper maps. I really like what my colleague David DiBiase said to the United Nations in a recent address: “The digital divide is no excuse to ignore geography.” Space doesn’t permit me to expand on the many activities based on paper maps and aerials that are suitable that I and others in the community have used for years, so let me describe just one in this essay. I have used this activity many times from age 6 to university level.

  1. Before you teach the lesson, access ArcGIS Online and change the base map to imagery or Bing aerial (whichever is higher resolution) and zoom the map to focus on school where you will teach this lesson. Make sure the school and the school grounds take up most of the image, but include some of the surrounding neighborhood as well.
  2. Print one of the aerials for each student, leaving space on the right and top for the title, legend, and other information.
  3. Obtain one piece of translucent paper for each aerial, and some clear tape.
  4. Go to the class where you are teaching with your papers and printed aerials.
  5. Ask the students what they think the school looks like from above. Have the students sketch the school on the white board or on paper, noting which way is north. Can they identify the cardinal directions by standing up in the classroom and pointing?
  6. Hand out the aerials and translucent paper. Discuss how well the aerial matches the students’ drawings on the board. What matches, and what doesn’t match, and why?
  7. Have the students tape the paper to the aerial along the top edge only.
  8. Get out colored pencils or markers. Discuss elements that are important for a good map, such as TODALSIGS – Title, orientation, date, author, legend, scale, index, grid, and source. Add name, orientation, title, scale, and source to start with.
  9. Discuss map themes (trees, school building, street, playground, soils, lakes and streams, and so on). Have the students choose one color for each theme for the translucent paper. Trace each theme from the aerial photo onto the translucent paper, lifting up the paper when necessary to have a clearer view of the aerial.
  10. Add each theme to the legend using the same color used for the theme.
  11. Ask students to remove the translucent paper from the aerial photo: Now they have a map! How is the map the same as the aerial image? How is it different?

What paper-based activities have you used to foster spatial thinking?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Fun with GIS 121: GPS Data

GPS devices and smartphone-based GPS apps are fun, often hugely powerful, and always great learning tools. There are challenges in an “urban canyon,” which can be seen in this little one-block hike. I opened a new map in ArcGIS Online, then dragged and dropped a GPX file onto the map. Bang, it draws! (I love that!)

I had strolled around one block, gathering data with my smartphone’s GPS app. Starting at the southeast corner, I traveled clockwise. The entire southern span has tall buildings on both sides, interfering with good signal, so, despite walking on the sidewalk, my track floats through buildings. Along the west, north, and east sides, tall buildings are only “inside” the loop. (You can even see where I crossed over to walk on the north side of the street.)

(Click to see map)

The highest elevation is the span along the west side and western half of the north side. The lowest portion is the entire east side of the loop. The south side and east half of the north side are sloped. Is there any way to see this? Yes, with a web app! After saving, I shared the map, and chose to create a web application using the GPX template.

Clicking on the template gives a nice “preview”. (An error window appeared but I just dismissed it.) The resulting app gives a time-based exploration of the route with elevation. Click the “play” button at the top. Also try hovering the mouse over the graph.

But was the southeast portion the highest? Remember that tall buildings cause signal problems. The west side — about 90 feet — was actually the highest.

Repeating this simple demo in a natural or urban canyon near you is a great way to see the need for caution around data, and the power of analysis for helping to assess trustworthiness. As we move into deeper and broader oceans of data (not just GPS), it is vital to understand how data were acquired and purposes for which they can be appropriately used.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Fostering Spatial Thinking Through Games

Those of us in the fields of geography, education, and GIS can probably name numerous games and activities that we are attracted to simply because there is “something spatial” about them. Some of them may have to do with wayfinding, others with angles and directions, patterns and shapes, distances, adjacency, groups, or may rely on geographic content knowledge. In Monopoly, I always sought houses and hotels on Oriental, Vermont, and Connecticut Avenues simply because I liked where they were positioned on the board. I wasn’t deterred by the fact that they were on the “cheap” side of the board (consequently, I seldom won). I enjoy playing Blokus and putting together jigsaw puzzles because of their spatial aspects (although I never could get the top pieces in the 3-D globe puzzle I helped put together this past New Year’s Eve).

Many of us were fond of the blue category in the original Trivial Pursuit game, which was geography (and were subsequently embarrassed whenever we missed a geography question!). I loved the angles and positions in early video games such as Pong and Galaga, and was frustrated by Asteroids largely because it seemed that the scale was wrong. Millions of people play Spatial IQ, Cross Fingers, Glass Tower, and other spatially oriented games on their computers and smartphones daily. And outside, while I found the directions to my one and only road rally game too complicated, I greatly enjoy confluence hunting, geocaching, and earthcaching.

A small but growing community of researchers and instructors is exploring how the playing of games can foster spatial thinking, content knowledge, and skills important in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, geography, and GIS. My colleague Dr. Diana Stuart Sinton teaches a class called the “Foundations of Spatial Thinking” as part of the Learning Spatially at the University of Redlands program. One of her assignments to the students is to categorize games and activities in terms of the spatial strategies used, and how the strategies may be relevant for STEM learning. Dr. Ola Ahlqvist has an NSF cyber learning grant to develop and study learning with GeoGames. National Geographic supported Reach The World’s development of geo-games. The world of geospatially-oriented games on smartphones and computers is poised for great expansion, with the inclusion of real spaces and places in these games posing intriguing potential for teaching, learning, and research. Imagine any game scenario not in an imaginary world but taking place using imagery and maps of Davenport, or Shreveport, or anywhere.

What are your favorite spatially-oriented games? How might you use games to foster spatial thinking and learning?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Fun with GIS 120: Five Fave World Maps

Last week’s blog was about five favorite ArcGIS Online maps of US data. This week I offer five favorite ArcGIS Online maps (or capacities) using world data. Most of these work on Mac or PC, tablet or smartphone. Each of these can be experienced by clicking on the map or using the short url.

1. Lat-Long Tool
No special map needed here. Finding a quick latitude and longitude is easy. Maps and apps with a Measure tool generally allow you to see Lat/Long with a tap or mouse move once you engage the tool.

2. Elevation Profile,
Use this app to draw a path in the neighborhood or across the world, and get a sideways look at the elevation, even out in the ocean, and trace to see the correspondence. (Best on full PC/Mac.)

3. Recent Earthquakes,
Explore the last 30 days of earthquakes, classified by magnitude and containing attributes of date and depth. Watch local concentrations, identify global patterns.

4. World Climate,
Characteristics of climate, presented in time series data, with anticipated shifts as projected through models.

5. World Bank Age & Population,
This is a complex data set with multiple layers and multiple time slices, plus pop-ups spelling out info from the last half-century.

Again, innumerable lessons await teachers of science, social studies, math, and the holistically-minded educator. As with last week’s maps of the US, customize these maps, mix and match the data, seek out a project, focus on your special area of study. Examine the patterns and relationships that describe and influence all our lives.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Components in an Introduction to Spatial Thinking Course

In my last blog post, I mentioned that universities are increasingly thinking about implementing courses entitled “Introduction to Spatial Thinking”. I described a few existing excellent models for such courses, inviting comments from the community. Development of such courses would be hastened by community dialog so that each faculty member does not feel like he or she has to develop such a course from scratch. In this essay, I would like to share components that would valuable in such a course.

I believe such a course should include a mix of reflections on readings and videos, and hands-on work with GIS and GPS technologies. An active discussion on the theoretical underpinnings of spatial thinking is necessary, because most students entering such a course most likely have had minimal exposure to geography in the past, and most likely have not purposely thought about the applicability of spatial thinking to their education, career, or life. I would begin with selected videos and essays to foster discussion, including the Geospatial Revolution, GIS Touches our everyday lives, my ArcWatch article Spatial Thinking: Habits of Mind, and my video Why Geography Education Matters. I would access articles on the bibliography on the Esri Education Community from Diana Stuart Sinton, Sarah Bednarz, Reg Golledge, and Phil Gersmehl, among others.

Whether face to face or online, I would promote active engagement with geospatial technologies. Easy-to-implement yet powerful activities would use ArcGIS Online, including Earth Quiz: Name that Place, analyzing the distribution of bail bonds and car washes in a metropolitan area, Weird Earth (Using strange and unusual imagery to spark inquiry), Exploring 10 Landscapes (such as eskers, karst, and lava fields), analyzing 10 aspects of water, (including watersheds, wetlands, dams and reservoirs, and oceans), and analyzing demographic components and their implications (such as median age, income, diversity, population density, and population change over time). Over the course of the semester, I would gradually increase the analytical rigor, using ArcGIS for Desktop with selected lessons from the Our World GIS Education books, siting a ski area using GIS, and determining the mean center of population for the USA and for individual states, 1790-2010. I would frequently include getting students out onto the campus or in their own neighborhoods (if the course is online), collecting data, mapping data, hyperlinking text, video, and photographs, and analyzing resulting patterns within a GIS environment.

I would require frequent presentations from students, including a presentation at the end of the semester, asking each student: How do you use spatial thinking each day, how have you used spatial thinking to solve three problems in this course, and how will you use GIS in the future?

What would you include in a course on spatial thinking?

-Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Ten Lessons on GIS Education from other parts of the World

I have had the fortune of visiting and working on a variety of GIS education projects at universities from Beirut to Bujumbura, Kyoto to San Jose CR. For those readers who are accustomed to working or studying in modern GIS labs with the latest hardware, software and textbooks, well, it turns out that worldwide this is the exception rather than the rule. Traveling around parts of the developing world I have seen many differences but more surprising to me have been the similarities. Here is a short list of some of the lessons, perhaps surprising, I have learned about GIS education from other parts of the world.

An ArcGIS training course as part of
a Masters degree program at UN University,
Tokyo. Students, mostly from developing
nations, were treated to modern facilities.

1. GIS is still new. Although for many of us GIS is a 40-year-old phenomenon, the world is chock-full of institutions that are JUST NOW beginning to learn about the power of GIS in education. The potential growth in developing nations is mindblowing. Most places around the world have just begun scratching the surface of GIS use in secondary schools, which are slowly gaining access to computers and internet connectivity. Much growth can be expected there also, especially if educators follow some of the innovative experiences in places like Canada, The Netherlands and South Africa.

2. Limited Globalization. When I mentioned The Ohio State University at a recent meeting in Ghana, one of the local university administrators said “Hey, I’m a Buckeye!”. Many GIS professors around the world have doctorate degrees from the US and Europe, however are unable to recreate Western-style learning environments when back home due to a lack of resources and institutional support. Important theoretical topics in GI Science, such as geo-semantics or data quality assessment, are not treated in many regions of the world where more practical topics dominate. In fact, GIS research per se, beyond the typical “GIS applied to topic X”, is really quite limited to developed nations.

3. The phone is the platform of the future. Many of today’s students in the developing world do not own a PC or have internet at home, but they do own a mobile phone. From what I have seen in Eastern Africa, for example, the percentages must be something like 30% versus 90%. These students are ready to leapfrog straight to distributed i.e. mobile GIS.

4. Unstable utilities. Many GIS laboratories around the world have computers that function only at certain times, depending on available electricity and maintenance. I tend not to photograph laboratories with “dead” computers out of courtesy, but they are everpresent. Teaching must and does accommodate this reality. The mobile phones, however, do work most of the time!

5. Digital Divide. Many GIS students do not have reliable access to the web and, therefore, are missing out on the vast array of web resources including GIS articles and lessons. Increased access to the web will revolutionize all education, not only in GIS. Dramatically increased bandwidth is now reaching both West and East coasts of Africa, and so we hope expect that connectivity will reach classrooms soon.

A cramped yet functional GIS
lab in Ghana. GIS yes, web no.

6. Private versus Public. Many students are unaware of the private geospatial marketplace, believing instead that their government is the only provider and consumer of geodata. This often lowers their horizons as far as employment opportunities. In Rwanda Esri has been working with government agencies to promote geo-entrepreneurship among young graduates.

7. Role models. Everybody around the world has a relative or friend studying or working in the US or Europe; never ceases to amaze me. This means that many students can imagine themselves working anywhere on Earth, if they can only catch that special break. But do they think that all their lucky friends work for government agencies? And there is now some renewed hope that internet connectivity will provide greater employment opportunity at home and will reduce the legacy of brain-drain.

8. Nike and ArcGIS. Many GIS students in developing nations are eager to learn and to acquire “brand name” software, as is the case also for their phones, their laptops, and their clothing. This is in part because university students tend to come from higher socioeconomic ranks, but also because students see that GIS jobs require knowledge of known commercial software. Software piracy is an issue but certainly not a showstopper, and slowly universities are acquiring site licenses which allow free software distribution to students anyway.

9. Starving for visitors. Almost without exception GIS education programs have asked me to help recruit volunteers to come visit them to teach short courses. Normally the universities or secondary schools are very accommodating regarding housing and hospitality (sometimes the red-carpet treatment can be almost too much). More needs to be done to match “geomentors” with hosts. Opportunities exist in interesting locations such as Accra, Kigali, Macao, Tokyo, or Belize.

10. Need to move beyond the desktop. Most GIS students around the world –including the developed world– are not yet learning what we might call enterprise GIS, that which goes beyond desktop “overlay and buffer” type of exercises, to include data publication and sharing using client/server and cloud infrastructures. This threatens to limit the reach of GIS’s benefits for societal problem solving. Again increased access to internet resources in the classroom is the key.

The list could go on of course, but ten seems to be the magic number these days. Overall my view is quite optimistic, because smart students who are given access to resources can flourish anywhere. I welcome your feedback regarding observations you have made regarding GIS education situations around the world.

- Mike Gould, Esri Global Education Manager

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Fun with GIS 119: Five Faves of USA

PD approaches! With the sun heading to the Tropic of Cancer, educators across USA are planning what to learn over the summer. For ye non-teachers, know that most educators will seek massive infusions to brain, heart, and soul in the few short weeks between graduation and the return to classes. Like humpback whales gorging on the summer herring, many teachers seek day-long, week-long, even month-long absorption in new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing. With that in mind, this week I offer my five favorite maps based on USA data using ArcGIS Online. They work on Mac or PC, tablet or smartphone. Each of these can be experienced by clicking on the map or using the short url.

1. USA Demographics for Schools
10 layers of scale-dependent demographic data at state, county, census tract, and block group, with pop-ups:

2. USA Territorial Acquisitions.
A common but incomplete representation of US history. What should be added to make a more holistic view?

3. US48Weather.
It changes constantly, and affects us massively. The contents update every few minutes; the impact can last a lifetime:

4. USA Waters for Schools.
Hierarchies of watersheds, which bind us together but pay not a whit of attention to political boundaries. How frightfully inconvenient!

5. USA Ecological Subregions.
The integration of landform, climate, soil, and biogeography. Types diverge or merge hierarchically, and influence massively how people can live within them:

Vast numbers of lessons await teachers of science, social studies, math, and the holistically-minded educator. Customize these maps, mix and match the data, seek out a project, focus on your area. Examine the patterns and relationships that describe and influence all our lives.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Planning an Introduction to Spatial Thinking Course

A question that gets increasingly asked on listservs and forums these days is advice by those who are planning a course at their university that focuses on spatial thinking. These courses may be entitled “Introduction to Spatial Thinking” but there are numerous variations, depending on the goals of the university and hosting department. It is exciting to learn about these new courses and those who are planning them, because it shows that the message that we in the geospatial education community have been sharing for years is at last getting out beyond our own community. That message has consistently been that spatial thinking and spatial analysis are too valuable to be held by a single department, program, or school on campus, whether it is Geography, Natural Sciences, or anything else. Rather, spatial thinking and analysis, and the use of GIS technology and methods as an aid in teaching those concepts, are valuable to the student’s overall education, career skills, and to society. These concepts and skills therefore need to be embedded in all departments on campus as part of a rigorous and innovative 21st Century education. Such courses not only provide theoretical and practical background for GIS courses, but also for any discipline in which the “where” question is important—in business marketing, environmental design, wildlife biology, history, civil engineering, geology, epidemiology, geography, and beyond.

How should such a course be planned and built? Fortunately, some good models exist. For example, the course developed by the GeoTech Center provides a checklist vetted by numerous GIS education professionals on what might be included. Dr Bone at the University of Oregon is developing a freshman-level course entitled Our Digital Earth, which will provide hundreds of students annually with an appreciation of the ubiquity of geospatial data and technologies in their everyday lives, and how the geospatial revolution is shaping societies around the world. Dr Diana Stuart Sinton developed courses at the University of Redlands such as Foundations of Spatial Thinking. Other example courses can be found in the “case studies” section of the Esri EdCommunity and in the pages of Esri publications ArcWatch, Esri News for Education, and ArcNews. I will follow this post with my own thoughts about what might be included in such a course in future blog essays.

In the meantime, please share your thoughts: What would you include in a course on spatial thinking?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Seven Ideas: GIS for Geocaching with Scouts, Youth, or Anyone

For the last several years now, every spring and fall, I volunteer to help the local Girl Scout council, not unlike many you GeoMentors. We plan and implement a large geocaching event. The event, now called “The Geocache Party” typically has 100 to 300 Girl Scouts involved. If you have ever planned a sizable geocaching (or Open Caching) event with several activities, you know placing, tracking, and reclaiming your caches can be a real nightmare. For a single event last year, we placed nearly 100 caches across 175 wooded acres. Just try to remember where all those caches are when you pick them up, at the end of an event!

Like many outdoor geo-activities, geocaching can be enhanced by using GIS. To support individual (traditional) geocaching or large geocaching events, I have assembled my seven ideas for leveraging GIS – to plan, manage, or even evaluate your caches and performance.

  1. Map your geocache coordinates before you leave home with the ArcGIS Online map viewer. Explore the geographic features, hazards, and public lands wherever you are headed. You can even add real-time weather to your map.
  2. Track and record your geocache finds in your own map at This allows you to tell your geocaching stories, your way.
  3. Preparing a geocaching event? Use a GIS to map and manage your caches. Cache type, location, activity or purpose fields help explain where and why a cache is placed. (image below)
  4. Print out your GIS map and take it with you for reference while geocaching. Selecting the best base map can often lend helpful data to your hunt!
  5. Report out! Add your GPS track, routes, and waypoints to your geocache coordinate map to see how well you did finding caches – in ArcGIS Online. (first image)
  6. Report out! Take all the photos and video you want while geocaching. You can place media in “notes” and geotag to document your trip.
  7. Learn GIS career skills while enjoying a great geo-hobby!

By the way, both the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts now offer Geocaching badges, each at certain age levels.

Happy Geocaching!

- Tom Baker, Esri Education Manager

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