The Grand Challenges of GIS in Instruction

Last week I wrote about what several geographers consider to be the “grand challenges of Geographic Information Sciences.” But to grapple with these grand challenges, we need to have people moving into the field of GIScience in the first place. To do that, we must engage students in thinking about their community, region, country, and world in a geospatial context, beginning at young ages. How can we help students to see that every major current issue—from natural hazards, biodiversity, agriculture, energy, water quality and availability, human health, social justice, politics, migration, climate, crime, and many more—are inextricably linked to geographic processes that occur over space and time? Using GIS is one powerful way of seeing these patterns, processes, and connections.

Students using GIS apply scientific inquiry—ask a question, gather data, understand data, analyze data, draw conclusions, and develop a fuller understanding about a particular issue. One of my favorite aspects of using GIS in instruction is that it helps to understand change. Changes from human and natural causes occur all around us, and if students analyze why and how things change, then they can begin thinking on a deeper level: Should the Earth be changing in these ways? Is there anything that I could or should be doing about it? This captures not only the heart of spatial thinking, inquiry and problem-based learning, but also empowers students as they become decision-makers to make a difference in this changing world of ours. GIS has ties to many disciplines, but a natural home for GIS in education is in geography, which has not seen consistent and high support over the past century in American education. How can we change this?

I stated above that we must engage students in thinking spatially. But before that can happen, we must engage students, period. Too often, students are bored, viewing education as something that ends as soon as they graduate, instead of being a lifelong learning experience. We must allow them the freedom, support, and tools so that they can discover and pursue their interests. This may be the grandest challenge of all.

All of the topics raised here can be debated and expanded. I look forward to your thoughts.

Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager.

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Drawing With GPS, Mapping With GIS

Most of us, whether at the beach, in the garden, or in a sandbox, have drawn words on the ground. Have you ever drawn something with your GPS receiver? As you probably are aware, all GPS receivers automatically record a track of your position. A track is analogous to you dropping bread crumbs every so often to mark where you have been. You can walk in such a way as to trace shapes of various kinds that are recorded on your track. These shapes can be letters, circles, squares, or others. Begin by examining websites showing track results, from to contributions to OpenStreetMap, and others. One of the earliest GPS drawings I ever saw was a decade ago where someone drew the word “IF” in England using a car. Each letter stretched from far north of London all the way down to the English Channel!

When you return from the field, you can upload these shapes into your GIS. Use an image or map from ArcGIS Online as a backdrop for your track.

As you can see in the ArcMap session above, I drew the words “GIS” with my receiver. I often include GPS drawing while working with teachers and students and I encourage you to do the same. Why? Drawing with GPS forces us to think about spatial relationships. We must be aware of where we have walked, noting local landmarks, so that we do not cut across letters that we have already drawn. How can I walk so that each letter is shaped correctly, is distinct from other letters, and is aligned so that the word lies on an east-west axis? In the example above, because the streets on the Colorado Community College System were aligned northwest to southeast, I had to be careful not to follow the street grid, but cut diagonally across lawns for optimal results. How could I have done better? How does changing the track setting from distance to time, or changing the distance or time interval between recorded track points, alter the appearance of the letters? For added interest, have students draw their first or last name.

What shapes would you like to draw with your GPS?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Analyzing the Environment in a GIS with the North American Environmental Atlas

GIS users are always on the lookout for interesting spatial data. Those who use GIS in education seek data that can be used to teach core concepts in a variety of disciplines. One of the most useful continent-wide spatial data resources is from the North American Environmental Atlas ( It contains data on watersheds, ecoregions, human impact on protected areas, industrial pollution, wetlands, land cover, conservation areas, and base layers including transportation, waterways, and cities. It also contains layers on 17 species of common conservation concern, such as the Burrowing Owl, the Mountain Plover, and the American Black Bear. The atlas was born from collaboration among the national mapping agencies in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and through the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Its goal is to provide a foundation to analyze the status of environmental conditions and identify trends across the whole continent.

The atlas is useful because of its rich content, the fact that it is comprised of public domain data, and because you can use it in three different ways. First, you may order up to 5 free paper wall-sized maps from the link on the site. Second, the content is offered as a Web GIS, meaning that you can examine the data interactively with just a web browser, made possible by ArcGIS Server running behind the scenes. What is the relationship between grasslands, rainfall, and elevation? Third, the data from the site is offered as downloadable shapefiles, layer packages, and map documents, ready for ArcGIS desktop. Metadata files are readily available and you can use the web GIS viewer for previewing the data before downloading. Why download the data if you can analyze it online? Both methods are valid approaches to helping students think spatially, but by downloading the data and using it inside ArcGIS desktop, you can dig deeper, analyzing the patterns across space, time, and with spatial statistical techniques. For example, you can assess how much burrowing owl habitat is within 10 kilometers of a pollutant release facility. I also like the atlas because it does not ignore the oceans—marine ecoregions, protected areas, and marine vessel emissions are all included.

What types of analysis will you do with the North American Environmental Atlas?

-Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Examining Current Steamflow Conditions in ArcGIS Online

One of the consistently valuable concepts in inquiry-based education is cause-and-effect. GIS is an excellent tool to illustrate cause and effect because phenomena on our dynamic planet occur at different scales and over different time periods, and thus can be examined spatially. One of the very first scientific monitoring networks to go online was the data from USGS stream gaging stations. I remember looking up some of these reports on microfiche when I first started working at the USGS in 1989; the data was valuable but already “historical” by the time it was published. Today, ArcGIS Online provides the ability to analyze how current and recent weather affect streamflow in real time.

To do this, visit ArcGIS Online and do a search on “water watch.” Open the US Water Watch in ArcGIS Online in your web browser. You can select from thousands of gaging stations that are broadcasting current flow conditions, including some with real-time data on several water quality variables. I searched and added “US Current Radar” and today I see that the upper Midwest is experiencing some significant areas of precipitation. How does this impact river conditions in the area? I identified a gaging station on the West Fork of the Vermillion River near Parker, South Dakota, station 06478690, and pulled up its information, below.

The identify window allows me to examine hydrographs and tabular data for the stream gage at this location. It reveals that the river is running at over 20 cubic feet per second, far above the mean of 0.7 cubic feet per second. The gate height of 1.5 feet in the lower graph helps students understand how much water this represents. They could wade across the river at this height, although caution near rivers is always a good idea. Students examining other rivers running over 20 times their normal discharge will find that it would be impossible to wade across many of these rivers.

What other phenomena influence streamflow? How could you ask students to uncover the relationship of snowmelt, floods, or hurricanes to streamflow using ArcGIS Online?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Using Callout Labels in ArcGIS

The ArcMap application within ArcGIS allows you to create an amazing variety of fonts, colors, and types of labels that identify point, line, and area features. One of the most useful types of labels is the callout label. This label “calls out” from the label to an off-site location that is typically not on the feature itself, and sometimes helps make maps that are more clearly understood by students. Consider the following example for a lesson I created about the Philippines. Here, if the labels were placed on the islands, they would obscure the data I wanted the students to explore, which was the human development index by administrative area (province). Therefore, I used callout labels so that they would be offset in the ocean.

How did I create these labels? Under the Layer Properties, under Labels, I selected a “Banner” style label. Under Properties for the banner style, I selected Properties once again, and then bumped up the x offset to 45 and the y offset to 30. You will have to experiment with your own data set for the optimal offset, depending on your map units and the feature shapes that you wish to label. I set the colors for the background and for the text.

I did something else to create the above labels. Many provinces are split up into hundreds of islands. To prevent every single island from receiving a label, I accessed the Placement Properties tool under the Label tab in the Layer Properties. Under Duplicate Labels, I indicated that I wanted only one label per feature:

You can also use the label tool in the draw toolbar to create interactive text labels as callout boxes, as shown below:

After remembering sticking sticky-back callout labels on maps way back in cartography’s manual days with an Xacto knife, these ArcGIS tools show the progress that has been made over the past 25 years!

I invite you to explore label placement to help the maps do what they are designed to do—to communicate!

Joseph Kerski, ESRI Education Manager

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The World’s Most Remote Island Group: Hawaii?

In a separate blog post at the ESRI Education Community, I investigated a claim that Bouvet Island is the world’s most remote uninhabited island using ArcGIS. At the same time, I mentioned that the definition of “remoteness” is subjective and therefore makes for an excellent classroom discussion and for investigation using GIS.

If you’ve flown to Hawaii, you may have been amazed at long the flight is, and wondered whether Hawaii is halfway across the Pacific Ocean. The Hawaiian Islands is the world’s most remote island chain with a sizeable population, estimated at 1.288 million in 2008 (US Census Bureau). Honolulu is the most remote major city over 500,000 population, because the nearest city of equal or greater size is San Francisco, 3,841 km distant.

Using ArcGIS and data from Book 2 of the Our World GIS Education series from ESRI Press, I set the data frame to Orthographic, centered near Maui at 21 North Latitude and 156 West Longitude so that I could see most of the Pacific Ocean on the map image.

Which is closer to Hawaii—California or southwest Alaska? Using the circle tool, above, I found out that these two are just about the same distance away—3,515 km. This is approximate as the measure tool was used at a small scale.

Is Hawaii halfway across the ocean? A visual assessment shows that this depends on the point at which one measures, for the Hawaiian Islands extend for hundreds of kilometers—over 1,000 including the seamounts. The southeastern inhabited Hawaiian islands are not quite halfway across the ocean: I measured with ArcGIS about 4,800 km from Hawaii to the nearest point on the Asian continent at Kamchatka, and 5,800 to Australia. Vladivostok (5,500 km) and Shanghai (6,400 km) are both farther than Kamchatka, and all are farther than North America.

A discussion about map projections, distances, and error is most appropriate here, because the measurements differ by up to 1,000 km depending on the map projection used. Try these tools to investigate other islands!

Joseph Kerski, Education Manager, ESRI.

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Analyzing Food Expenditures at Home vs. Away from Home

Think about two ways you can consume food – at home or away from home. Think about how often you eat at home versus away from home. Food purchased in grocery stores and eaten “at home” is generally less expensive than food purchased and eaten in restaurant. Do you think that the ratio of food expenditure at home vs. away from home varies by country? If so, how and why would it vary? Do you think there is a geographic pattern of the ratio within the USA, by region or even by neighborhood?

new lesson in the ArcLessons library invites you to think spatially using common experiences of food purchasing and consumption, to analyze the relationship of food purchasing versus median age and household income, and to learn how to use ArcGIS Online as an analytical tool.

The lesson uses a standard web browser to access the food expenditure map on ArcGIS Online. The food data represent just two of the hundreds of variables available in the Esri Consumer Spending database. Esri combined the 2005-2006 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to estimate these spending patterns.

I wrote the lesson around 10 focal points, including “scale matters,” national patterns, urban vs. rural, patterns within cities, famous foods and cities, university towns, retirement communities, areas with low population density, median age, and median household income. To compare these last two variables to food expenditures requires the addition of two additional layers, which is easily done in ArcGIS Online. The ability in ArcGIS Online of comparing different variables across space is a valuable educational tool.

The web GIS map displays a ratio of the average annual household expenditure on “food at home” to “food away from home.” Areas in red represent areas where households spend noticeably more at home, while blue area households spend noticeably more away from home. Households in an “average” area tend to spend $1.38 on food at home for every $1.00 on food away from home. This ratio of 1.38 does not mean that food at home is more expensive; it means that more money is spent for home consumption of food than money is spent away from home. In other words, most people eat at home more frequently than they eat away from home. Where the ratio approaches 1:1 represents areas where an equal amount of money is spent on food at home versus away from home. Red areas are above this average, blue areas are below this average, and yellow areas are near the average.

Why do many metropolitan areas contain neighborhood where the ratio is high, surrounded by a suburban ring where the ratio is low, surrounded by rural areas where the ratio is high again? Why do rural areas in Nevada and Utah seem to have a lower ratio than rural areas elsewhere?

What spatial patterns of food expenditures can you discover using this Web GIS resource? What implications do these patterns have?

-Joseph J. Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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An Earth Day Reminder of the Importance of Getting Out Into the Field

We laugh at the scene in the movie “Vacation” when Chevy Chase’s family finally arrives at the rim of the Grand Canyon, only to snap a few photos for a minute before getting back into the car and driving to their next destination. Yet how much of our fieldwork is brief and limited to just a few of the five senses? Earth Day provides an annual reminder that fieldwork is critical to what the GIS education community believes in, advocates, and analyzes. Nowadays, we have so many map, video, and data sources along with GIS tools at our fingertips that it is tempting to think we can “get by” without doing any fieldwork. Indeed, in these days of educational funding constraints when fieldwork involves high costs, permissions, and effort, these resources are extremely welcome and valued.

We on the Esri education team work closely with the education community to promote active fieldwork. We work with the American Geological Institute on Earth Science Week and with those promoting “No Child Left Inside” initiatives; we make use of the documents on the Place Based Education Initiative, and promote the use of probes, GPS, and other mobile devices to provide primary data to map and analyze within a GIS environment.

But the importance of fieldwork goes far beyond the GIS education community. Sobel’s Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education (1996) makes it clear that children are disconnected from the world outdoors, but yet are as never before connected with endangered animals and ecosystems around the globe through electronic media. He states that essential to helping students to understand environmental issues in distant lands is to cultivate connections to the local environment by teaching about local systems. “What’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it, before being asked to heal its wounds.” This can be done through his stages of empathy, exploration, and social action. His statements such as “Authentic environmental commitment emerges out of firsthand experiences with real places on a small, manageable scale” are expanded in his book Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. These ideas were brought to the attention of additional educators and the general public by Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods (2005).

Even if students cannot get away from campus, they can still collect data right on their own school grounds. I taught for a week with Dr Herb Broda awhile back, and his book SchoolYard Enhanced Learning provides excellent ideas on how to do just that.

To support your continued advocacy for fieldwork in your own educational institution, I created a video entitled “Why is fieldwork important?“.

How might you make every day an “Earth Day” in terms of exciting your students about the importance of observing the world around them?

-Joseph Kerski, Education Manager

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Analyzing Change Over Time Using Topographic Maps and Imagery with GIS

A principal aim of geospatial analysis is examining and understanding change over space and time. One of the simplest yet most powerful things you can do in ArcGIS desktop ( or in ArcGIS Online ( is to visualize change over time by studying change based on different basemaps created on different dates.

For example, I recently conducted a GIS workshop for educators at Northeast Junior College in Sterling, Colorado. While on campus, in ArcMap, I added satellite imagery as well as the USGS topographic map. I determined the date of the topographic map (1971) by accessing the USGS Map Store. I found the date of the satellite imagery (2009) by using the Identify tool in ArcMap on the imagery layer. I used the swipe tool so I could scroll back and forth across the map to easily compare the different basemap images.

The nearly 40 years of changes revealed by comparing the topographic map to the satellite imagery indicated that the name and the location of the college had changed. The college had changed from Sterling Junior College to Northeastern Junior College, and had expanded from the northeast to the southwest. The current location of the college is the former Logan County fairgrounds. After mapping the route we took during our fieldwork with GPS receivers that day (shown in dark yellow on the map below), we discovered that we were on the old fairgrounds track. We could trace the fairgrounds track and then walk that same route on the current campus, noting what had changed.

Comparing the two basemaps revealed changes beyond the campus, including the direction that Sterling had expanded over the decades, the expansion of commercial zoning into former residential areas, and even the renumbering of the interstate from I-80S to I-76. In ArcMap, we measured the areal extent of the city in 1971 and today, compared the percentage of expansion to other communities in the area and other communities of a similar size in the region, and examined population data of these communities.

How might you analyze change over time using topographic maps and imagery of an area you are interested in?

-Joseph Kerski, Education Manager

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Scale Matters, 2 of 2

Several types of scale exist in geography. Cartographic scale refers to the size of a feature on a map relative to its actual size in the real world. Cartographic scale can be expressed as a verbal statement such as “one inch equals one mile”, or graphically as in a scale bar, or as a representative fraction, such as 1:24,000 scale. A small scale map (such as 1:1,000,000) shows a great amount of area but not much detail. A large scale map (such as 1:24,000) shows a great amount of detail but not much area. This may seem counterintuitive but it is because the ratio 1:1,000,000 (or 1/1,000,000) is smaller than 1/24,000. A small fraction means a small scale map. Confusion sometimes occurs because when we discuss large scale phenomena, we usually are referring to things operating over a large area, like hurricanes. But if we were to map all of the hurricanes in a year over the North Atlantic, the map would actually have to be at a small scale to see them all at once. To clarify, I often use the terms “fine scale” and “coarse scale.”

Analysis scale refers to the size of the unit at which a particular problem is analyzed, such as on a scale of a watershed or neighborhood. Phenomenon scale, as referred to by UCSB’s Daniel Montello, is the size at which human or physical earth structures or processes exist, regardless of how they are studied or represented. They are interrelated. For example, choices concerning the scale at which a map should be made depend in part on the scale at which measurements of earth features are made and the scale at which a phenomenon actually exists.

Therefore, scale is important far beyond the map. It is important in deciding at what scale to analyze a problem. For example, for analyzing river systems, is it most appropriate to study whole drainage basins, or select a sample of watersheds? For languages, should you study dialect areas or whole language regions? We often use terms such as local, micro, meso, macro, and global in discussing scale. The idea of nesting is also important – blocks nest inside block groups, which nest inside census tracts which nest inside counties for US demographic analysis based on US Census Bureau geography. Sometimes we have to generalize features and phenomena to really see the pattern, simply because there is too much detail at a local level, and so generalization has to do with scale as well.

I discuss all of this in a video on: GIS contains many functions that can be effectively used in teaching about scale. How might you use GIS to teach about scale?

-Joseph Kerski, Education Manager

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