Monthly Archives: May 2013

Be Spatially Critical

At the last Esri International User Conference, my Esri education colleague Laura Bowden and I conducted a spatial thinking workshop.  Laura said something in the workshop that I have been musing about ever since: “Be spatially critical.” This phrase is laden with meaning and examining it in this blog may shed light on why this community believes so firmly in the value of research and practice in GIS in education.

Be Spatially Critical

Be Spatially Critical !

Effectively using GIS in teaching and learning hinges upon critical thinking and spatial thinking.  For example, some critical thinking questions relate to the context of a problem:  What background research do I need to examine and what content do I need to immerse myself in to be knowledgeable about the issue?  What are the costs and benefits of the issue I am analyzing?  Who are the stakeholders affected by the issue?  What are the historical, current, and future implications surrounding the issue?

At the 1987 conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Scriven and Paul stated that critical thinking means to “conceptualize, apply, analyze, synthesize and/or evaluate information gathered from, or generalized by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief or action [or argument].”  GIS can be used to foster such actions, and in practice, this is where critical and spatial thinking meet: What data do I need to gather and analyze to assess the issue completely and accurately?  How can I represent that issue within a GIS environment using raster and vector data sets, multimedia, graphs and charts, and by other means and tools?  Can I trust my data sources?  At what scale do I need to examine my chosen issue?  What data will support that scale of analysis?  What symbology, classification, and presentation techniques should I choose to effectively communicate my results?

Other questions are specific to an instructional environment:  As an instructor, how can I best teach to encourage students to be spatially critical?  As a student, what content knowledge, skills, and geographic perspectives do I need to cultivate in order to develop my ability to become spatially critical?

In sum, the phrase “Be Spatially Critical” includes elements of critical thinking and spatial thinking, both of which my colleagues and I frequently write about in this blog.  Laura Bowden and I plan to conduct a spatial thinking workshop at the 2013 Esri User Conference as well, and we look forward to reading your comments here and interacting with you during the workshop!

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Fun with GIS 144: USA Demographics for Schools

In August of 2010, Fun With GIS #55 showed how educators and students could use ArcGIS Online for free, easily, while studying demographic patterns of the US. Ten layers of data at state, county, census tract, and block group level for the entire US beckoned learners of all ages and backgrounds.

Eastern USA in old version map

This spring, most of the data layers were refreshed, and now the popups for most layers have been modified to enhance the display and the analyses possible. (Get used to hovering over the graphs to see even more detail.)

Los Angeles area in new map

It’s easy to get to this revised map, and you don’t even have to be signed in to an account. Just head to and start exploring! Or, if you’re already signed in, just look for a map called “USA Demographics for Schools.”

Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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A Working Definition of Spatial Thinking

The phrase “spatial thinking” has been receiving increasing attention over the past decade, encouraged in part from the National Research Council’s report Learning to Think Spatially:  GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum.   However, in many ways, we in the GIS education community have been immersed in promoting and supporting spatial thinking in education for far longer than that; indeed, for over 20 years.  Beginning in the early 1990s, a handful of innovative K-12 teachers, along with a few interested faculty in universities, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies working closely with K-12 educators, as well as the Esri Education Team (which began in 1992), to bring spatial thinking through the use of GIS tools to primary and secondary schools.  At the same time, the Esri Higher Education program began.  At the university level, spatial thinking has long been nurtured by research and practice from the fields of geography, science education, cognitive psychology, human-computer interaction, and others.

Spatial Thinking:  Perspective, Skills, and Content

Spatial Thinking: Perspective, Skills, and Content.

What exactly is spatial thinking?  There have been many attempts to define it.   My interest in it lies mostly on the geographic side, so, perhaps my definition is better labeled as “geospatial thinking.”  This overlaps some with “geoliteracy“, which has also been receiving increasing attention.  My working definition of spatial thinking is “Identifying, analyzing, and understanding the location, scale, patterns, and trends of the geographic and temporal relationships among data, phenomena, and issues.”

More important to me than the definition, though is that the diverse communities of scholars and practitioners who care about this topic work together to ensure that it is supported, taught, and put to use in education and in society.  What is our goal in terms of spatial thinking?  I like how the NRC report puts it:  It is to cultivate the spatial thinking “habit of mind.”  This habit of mind is the geographic perspective on how the world works, including how systems function, how and why certain relationships exist, and also how we might approach and solve problems.  How can we cultivate spatial thinking?  That, friends, is the subject of many of the essays that appear in this blog, from pedagogical strategies to specific skills and technologies used.  What could be our measure of success?  If we can identify key points in the educational curriculum where spatial thinking can enhance what and how we are teaching, and in those points, to put spatial thinking skills into practice, then I think we have succeeded.

What is your definition of spatial thinking?   When, where, and how do you think spatial thinking should be put into practice?

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The Pain of Geography

Our thoughts and prayers go out to those in Moore, Oklahoma, victims of our violent planet. The tornado that atomized houses, plucked trees, and pulverized schools was at times a mile wide, with winds that may have exceeded 200 miles an hour.

This monster did not appear from nowhere. Science – including geography, the science of “what is where, and why” – helps us understand the present and see into the future. Our vision grows stronger with each year, but we still have a long way to go.

Air, water, fire, and earth … we cannot yet control the storms, the quakes, the floods, the fires, though we may perhaps influence them … consciously or not, and whether we admit it or not. We can only hope to understand them better, and learn to make better decisions regarding them. Science – including geography – will yield many lessons. It is up to us to learn the lessons. And, until we understand well enough the many rules of our perilous planet, we will continue to mourn the lost.

Our thoughts and prayers go to the families and friends of these events.

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Student Videos to be Featured at EduC Plenary

This Spring, Esri’s Education Team invited nominations of outstanding students and alumni to present their stories in a special plenary session at the 2013 Esri Education GIS Conference. Nominations were to include a video in which the student or alum demonstrates how GIS education made a difference in his or her life.

Of the many nominations received, we’ve selected the following five nominees to appear in the Celebrating Student Success plenary session Saturday morning July 6 in San Diego:

Steve Chignell, Colorado State University

Julien Clifford, Texas A&M Corpus Christi

Mohan Rao, Austin Community College

René Smit, University of Pretoria

Nekya Young, Texas Southern University

We regret that we can’t bring every worthy nominee to San Diego. However, we will proudly screen excerpts of the following nomination videos during the Celebrating Student Success plenary:

Mariana Belgiu, University of Salzburg

Luke Burns, Leeds University

Dara Carney-Nedelman, Unicoi County 4-H Team

Kelsey Ciarrocca, George Mason University

Christopher Grundling, University of Pretoria

David Hapgood, Center of Geographical Studies, NSCC

Iván Elías Ruiz Hernández, Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez

Emmaline Long, Cornell University

Nancy Milholland, University of Southern California

Elisabeth Moughan, Unicoi County 4-H Team

Cameron Robertson, Center of Geographical Studies, NSCC  

Amanda Stanko, Arizona State University

Chris Stayte, Miami Valley Career Technology Center

Congratulations to all these successful students, and thanks for their efforts in preparing nominations. We’re looking forward to seeing their videos featured during the plenary session!

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Connecting and Empowering Young Professionals

I recently participated in the European Association of Geographers conference in Belgium.  There, I had the pleasure of interacting with energetic and knowledgeable young professionals promoting the European Geography Association for Students and Young Geographers, the EGEA.

The European Geography Association

Some members of the European Geography Association, with Karl Donert above left, President of the European Association of Geographers.

It is an honor for Esri to partner with and support this organization, along with our colleagues at the University of Utrecht and elsewhere.  The goal of EGEA’s network is to exchange knowledge and information for geography students and young geographers. To achieve this goal, EGEA organises congresses, student exchanges, hosts foreign students, and publishes a newsletter. As all of us in the field of geotechnology are well aware, networking is critical for success.  But what is also critical is empowering students and young professionals as they begin their careers in this field.  How can we as the geography and GIS professsional community best do that?

Associations such as the EGEA can help grow an effective geo-workforce of tomorrow through development of skills, confidence, and, in short, cultivating lifelong learning and career growth.  Also playing a key role are resources such as the new GeoPivot and the Geomentor program.  But I also think effective nurturing starts at earlier ages, reflected in the efforts that we and others are making in such programs as 4H, the National Girls Collaborative Project, and other after school programs, and through working directly with primary and secondary students and educators.  We have numerous complicated issues to solve in the 21st Century, and most of these issues have a geographic component that can be understood through the use of geotechnologies.  These young people with whom we are working are skilled, committed, and eager to make a positive difference in our world.

Are you involved in any of these efforts to help build the next generation of geo-minded professionals?   What other efforts do you think our community needs to make?

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Esri’s Education Industry Team began formally on Monday June 1 of 1992, and the K-12 side slid into playing catch-up before the week was out. Late in 1994, Judy Laudenbach joined the “Schools & Libraries” team and started fielding initial calls, sending out info, and helping people get software. She became the primary contact for school districts anxious to get software, arrange special services, or find a business partner who could help. For 18 years, with down-home ease from small-town Minnesota and years in banking, she has talked and emailed with thousands of people, including holding down the fort when the Esri Conferences were underway and nobody was accessible. (Common question at conference: “Is Judy here? I talk with her all the time, and want to meet her!”)

At the end of May, Judy is retiring, turning in her mouse and monitor and phone. Never one to let grass grow underfoot, she has already set up volunteer work in the community. A bit of travel with family, “digging in the dirt” around home, fishing, and helping friends and relatives will keep her fully occupied.

On behalf of thousands of users, thanks for making everyone’s life better, Judy! We will miss you!

The Esri EdTeam

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East Dakota, West Dakota

East Dakota and West Dakota

East Dakota and West Dakota

GIS is often used to help us understand the world as it is, or was in the past, or model what it could be like in the future. But it can also be used to explore what could have been. Take the case of North Dakota and South Dakota. These two states were carved out of the Dakota Territory in 1889.  President Harrison did not want to show favoritism when he signed the documents in terms of which state was admitted first, so they are listed alphabetically, with North Dakota listed as the 39th state and South Dakota listed as the 40th state.  In many ways, the manner in which the two states were divided, by an east-west line near the 46th Parallel, made sense. Yet what if the territory had not been divided into North Dakota and South Dakota yet as East Dakota and West Dakota?

Several geographers over the years have speculated about the physical and cultural ‘divide’ that persists to this day.  Many residents of the two states use  the term “East River” to refer to lands east of the Missouri River, and “West River” to refer to lands west of the Missouri River. To me, this is the perfect lesson whose value is enhanced with the use of GIS, and specifically, the creation of data within ArcGIS desktop and the serving and sharing of that data on ArcGIS Online.

Using ArcGIS desktop, I created my two states using county lines that followed the Missouri River.   What to do about the Bismarck?  I left Mandan, on the west bank of the Missouri, in WD, in part because when one departs Bismarck on I-94, it really does feel like one is entering the “west”.  Northwest of Bismarck, where the river turns west, I included the counties in northwestern North Dakota as part of West Dakota.  The reason is that I considered that they have more physical and cultural characteristics in common with the west than the east. I highly enjoyed my next task:  Selecting my two capital cities: Rapid City, “WD” and Sioux Falls, “ED”.  I considered Fargo for the ED capital but settled on Sioux Falls for several reasons.  Thus, Sioux Falls, ED is like Cheyenne, WY: Tucked into the corner of a vast territory. After my work in ArcGIS desktop, I shared my states on ArcGIS Online so others can use it as part of an educational lesson.

East Dakota has 79 counties. Its population rose from 637,720 in 1900 to 979,147 in 1950 to 1,119,642 by 2010. West Dakota has 40 counties. Only 65,604 lived there in  1900, in large part the miners who were still combing the Black Hills) but by 1950 it still only contained 289,571, and in 2010, 367,229 lived there. Thus, my East and West states are more lopsided in population than are the north and south states. Interestingly, over the past few years, my West Dakota is growing more rapidly than East Dakota with the expansion of the energy sector near Williston.

This activity, anchored squarely in the “what if”, helps students think spatially about physical geography, cultural geography, and history.

What sorts of “what if” scenarios can you create with a GIS?

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Examining volcanoes of the world using webcams and ArcGIS Online

ArcGIS Online makes it  easy to create engaging content on relevant issues of our planet tied to real-time data.  For example, as part of our focus on created STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) resources here at Esri, I recently created a volcanoes of the world map in ArcGIS Online with webcams.

Volcanoes map with Webcams

Volcanoes map in ArcGIS Online with Webcams.

Each webcam is tied to selected volcanoes as images tied to the popups that appear when the user clicks on each one of them.  The webcams update every minute or every few minutes depending on how the webcam operator set them up.  This map can serve as an engaging introduction to a unit on the differences in the types of volcanoes.  And since the map is inside ArcGIS Online, additional content such as earthquakes and plate boundaries can be added with the click of the mouse. After doing so, students could investigate the relationships between all of these phenomena in a plate tectonics unit.  What is the distribution of volcanoes around the world?  Why do some types of plate boundaries have more volcanoes than others?  Why do some volcanoes appear to be associated with earthquakes while others are not?  Other questions can be investigated (why are some of the webcams dark?) and tools can be engaged (what is the closest volcano on this map to where you live?).  Zoom in on specific volcanoes and change the basemap to a satellite image, exploring the land use and assessing risk to the population in the area.

Using these same simple techniques, you or your students could add additional volcanoes and webcams to my map and save it in your own account.  Or you could create a different web map in ArcGIS Online examining other phenomena in real time:  Traffic in a different parts of a city, trails in different ecoregions around the world, river heights and depths around the world, wildfire, weather, and much more.

How might you use these techniques and maps in your own teaching and learning?

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