Thinking Spatially with GIS

What would you do in 75 minutes to introduce your colleagues to spatial thinking and analysis? Recently I had the opportunity to do just that, when my Esri colleague Laura Bowden and I conducted a spatial thinking technical workshop at the 2012 Esri International User Conference. I share our outline and reflections in the hopes that it will be of assistance as you plan your own workshops and classes.

First, we were greatly encouraged by the inclusion of such a workshop in the conference for what we believe was the first time. Second, we decided to structure the workshop by introducing how several scholars have defined spatial thinking, plus our own reflections from the standpoint of GIS in education, and followed this with demonstrations of how to use spatial thinking in grappling with real world situations and data using several different tools. In essence, then, we sought to demonstrate “research into practice.”

We started the workshop by posing the following question to the attendees, “Are not all people in the GIS profession, by definition, spatial thinkers?” One could argue that they are indeed, but our purpose for the workshop was to make spatial thinking more purposeful. By employing spatial thinking, we sought to show this excellent group of GIS professionals that they could be more efficient on the job, ask better questions, discover new problems and investigate solutions, and have the opportunity to investigate new tools and build new GIS skills.

We began the workshop by defining spatial thinking as seen through the eyes of research from Joe Berry, Phil and Carol Gersmehl, and the National Academy of Sciences. We discussed our view that GIS relies on three legs of a stool—content knowledge, skills, and the geographic perspective. We then conducted investigations involving the analysis of different images around the world, showed thematic choropleth maps and asked the attendees to identify the “mystery variables,” studied historical tornadoes of the USA, modeled boundaries simple and complex with vector and raster data, mapped the patterns of local and regional businesses, tracked the mean center of the population over space and time, and studied real-time earthquakes. We used the most appropriate tool for each job, and therefore used a variety of tools, including ArcGIS Online, Community Analyst, and ArcGIS for Desktop, and our investigations covered all scales from local to global.

Distribution of two regional convenience store chains using Spatial Analyst. Can you guess which two are shown?

Did we leave something out that you would consider critical? How might you structure a workshop that you are requested to conduct on spatial thinking?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

Joseph Kerski

About Joseph Kerski

Joseph Kerski is a geographer who believes that spatial analysis through digital mapping can transform education and society through better decision-making using the geographic perspective. He serves on the Esri education team and is active in GIS communication and outreach, creates GIS-based curriculum, conducts research in the effectiveness of GIS in education, teaches online and face-to-face courses on spatial thinking and analysis, and fosters partnerships to support GIS in formal and informal education at all levels, internationally. He is the co-author of Spatial Mathematics, The Essentials of the Environment, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data, and other books. Follow him on Twitter @josephkerski
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