Scale Matters, 1 of 2

Understanding geography and using GIS as an analytical tool in education and research requires a sensitivity to and an awareness of scale. This provides a framework for understanding how events and processes influence each other. Any phenomena we are studying at one scale can be influenced by phenomena operating on other scales. For example, traffic patterns affect local neighborhood zoning and movement, but also affect regional land use and reflect regional patterns of trade. They also reflect and can be studied in the context of national or international migration, economics, and demographic characteristics. Climate is another complex phenomenon that operates at multiple scales. It affects weather on a local scale but also affects such global phenomena such as ice pack at the poles, sea level, and the location of deserts, rainforests, monsoons, and consequently, human settlement, agriculture, clothing and building styles, and much more. In between, at a regional scale, climate is affected by landforms, such as mountains, prevailing winds, and even eruptions of volcanoes. Thus, to fully understand our complex world, we must look at processes across multiple scales.

Scale is about size. It can be relative or absolute. Scale can be about space, or about time, since things that occur across space almost always have a temporal component. For example, think about wildfires versus glacial advance. They have different spatial scales and different temporal scales. There is also a thematic scale, having to do with the grouping of attributes such as water quality or weather variables.
Scale is a theme that runs through all of geographic analysis, because geographic analysis has to do with trends, patterns, relationships across space and, often, time as well.

Consider the different processes operating on this landscape on a local scale, photographed on the ground, versus those operating at a regional scale, photographed out an airplane window of the same location.

Several types of scale exist within geographic analysis. They are interrelated and are equally important. They are also important far beyond geography, in any discipline where spatial aspects are considered, such as in epidemiology, biology, earth science, or business marketing. GIS can be used in a wide variety of ways to teach about each type of scale, which I discuss in a video on: I will discuss the different types of scale in the next blog.

How might you use GIS to teach about scale?

Joseph Kerski, Education Manager

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Analyzing the Spatial and Temporal Aspects of Tornadoes Using GIS

Spring in North America brings not only new flowers, but a new crop of tornadoes. The 2011 tornado season has already been horrific, and our hearts go out to all those affected. Like most natural phenomena, tornadoes exhibit a spatial pattern on a global, regional, and local scale, and a temporal pattern depending on season, time of day, and duration. Both the spatial and temporal components can be examined and understood with the use of GIS.

To do this, I have written three lessons and compiled data sets that may help do just that. The first, Investigating Historical and 1 Modern Tornado uses ArcGIS Online (, search on “Tuscaloosa owner:jjkerski”) to examine pre- and post-tornado imagery that can be toggled on and off or adjusted in terms of opacity. Using these sobering data sets, the width and length of the Tuscaloosa tornado can be examined, as well individual building types affected, and historical tornadoes by decade throughout the USA. The second, “Investigating Historical Tornadoes Using ArcGIS”, allows for further investigation, which reveals that while more common on the Great Plains and interior lowlands, tornadoes have occurred in nearly every state, and are not as uncommon in the mountain west as one might think. Contrary to popular opinion, the data also reveals that Kansas is not the area with the highest density of tornado outbreaks. Do you know what state has the highest density? See below.

Selecting the tornadoes by month shows the seasonal ebb and flow of the outbreak of tornadoes, starting from coastal areas near the Gulf of Mexico in January and increasing to a spatial maximum in July of each year. The numeric maximum occurs in April, three months earlier than the spatial maximum. During which six hour period do you think the most tornadoes touch down—between midnight and 6:00am, 6:00am to Noon, Noon to 6:00pm, or 6:00pm to midnight? Examining the historical data reveals that the tornado causing the most injuries (1,740) occurred in northern Texas in 1979 and the one causing the most fatalities (116) occurred in northeast Michigan in 1953. The lesson also invites you to discover in which elevation range tornadoes are most common, and the difference between tornado touchdowns and tornado tracks.

The third lesson invites students to download and analyze a single day of tornadoes. Using data from the NOAA Storm Prediction Center, the lesson begins with an analysis of 22 April 2011, the day of the tornado that caused damage at the St Louis airport. Analysis reveals that the airport tornado was only one point along a line of tornadoes that day in that region. Wind and hail for that day are also analyzed, including the determination of the mean center and standard deviational ellipse for all storm types. The lesson concludes with the students’ selecting a different day, downloading the CSV files from NOAA, and mapping and comparing them to 22 April’s storms.

-Joseph Kerski, Education Manager

Answer: According to this dataset, tornado density is highest in sections of Oklahoma.

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Describing the Value of Spatial Analysis in Education

I recently taught a GIS short course for educators with our colleague Dr. Marsha Alibrandi, where she spoke of four adjectives that seemed to encapsulate some key reasons why we believe that spatial analysis has value in education:

• Actual: Spatial analysis provides hands-on work with the same tools that decision-makers from a wide and expanding variety of professions use every day on the job.

• Virtual: Using GIS, GPS, and remote sensing tools allow for immersive, multimedia-rich experiences that help us understand processes, places, and problems.

• Critical: Using real data to analyze issues provides critical thinking skills about the issues themselves, about the data that we choose to use or not use, about how to communicate the findings, and much more.

• Ethical: Examining real-world issues brings students face-to-face with such ethical decisions as the positive and negative impacts on people and the environment for land use decisions, whether and how to act on a problem, and how to present findings using maps in an unbiased manner.

I would like to expand this line of thought as follows:

• Social: The use of GIS in education is often best done as part of a collaborative project in the classroom, in the community, or with those studying similar problems halfway around the world.

• Psychological: The use of spatial technologies builds on research in spatial cognition, geographic and cartographic education, and other foundations, and takes advantage of multiple intelligences and learning styles.

• Creative: Through symbols, colors, patterns, video, presentations, and other means, GIS fosters inventiveness and creativity.

• Tactical: Using GIS helps accomplish a purpose—to understand something better, to make a decision, to see connections between places, processes, and phenomena.

• Logical: Whether formalized through the use of tools like model builder or not, GIS helps frame problems in a logical manner so that they can be grappled with. Another way to think of the “logical” is through the disciplines engaged, from the geological to the hydrological to the sociological and beyond.

• Practical: From its outset, GIS was created as a toolkit that could be useful in many different disciplines, at different scales, and in many different situations. It forces the user to be organized about how to access, store, and use a variety of different types of data.

• Useful: GIS is useful in many different careers. GIS is useful from a technical standpoint, on mobile devices, desktop and laptop computers, and in the cloud environment.

• Helpful: Not only is GIS used to help people make better decisions, but GIS helps improve the quality of their own lives, through better sanitation, medical care, sustainable development, and in other ways.

• Essential: GIS is essential for grappling with key issues of the 21st Century—energy, water quality and quantity, climate change, natural hazards, political instability, urbanization, sustainable agriculture, and others that grow in importance on a global scale and also increasingly impact our everyday lives. Using GIS in education is essential in order to infuse these tools into societal decision-making.

What other adjectives come to your mind when you consider the “GIS advantage”?

- Joseph Kerski, Education Manager

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Describing a Community or Region with Photographs and ArcGIS Online

Linking photographs to maps and saving and sharing those maps can be quickly and easily done using ArcGIS Online. These maps can be used to create a sense of place by telling a story about a community or a region. For example, I created a map of my home state of Colorado using photographs that I have taken at intersections of whole-degree latitude and longitude lines, as part of the Degree Confluence Project. Clicking on the pushpins yields a photograph that I have taken at that location, as determined by the GPS receiver that I carried to that point. Clicking on each photograph calls up a video that I filmed at that same location. Each point was added by entering the latitude and longitude in the search tool, adding a point and a hyperlink, saving the points as a map layer, saving the map to ArcGIS Online, and sharing the map with the world.

What story does such a map tell about a community or region? In the case of my map of Colorado, the photographs clearly confirm the popular image of Colorado as a mountainous state. Yes, the state contains numerous spectacular mountain peaks and ranges, as shown in the image at 39 North Latitude, 107 West Longitude, below. But the map also challenges the notion that some people may have that Colorado is completely covered by mountains. The map shows that this is true only for roughly the central third of the state. The western third of the state is best characterized as canyonlands, while the eastern third of the state is firmly entrenched in the Great Plains. What vegetation, water, landforms, climate, and evidence of human impact are visible at each location? What point best captures the “essence of Colorado?”

As you can see, I have a few more points to visit, but I hope to complete my map someday.

How might you use photographs hyperlinked to maps using ArcGIS Online to describe and tell a story about an area in which you are interested?

-Joseph Kerski, Education Manager

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A STEM Center Where Geospatial Is Literally at Your Feet… and Over Your Head

I recently had the good fortune of conducting a professional development GIS institute for educators recently at the new Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) center at Overland High School and Prairie Middle School in Colorado. We found out about the center after meeting its director, Dr. Richard Charles, while hosting an Esri exhibit at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) last year. My colleague Charlie Fitzpatrick recently described the connections of GIS to STEM.

The center’s mission states that “The success of the United States in the 21st century – its wealth and welfare – will depend on the ideas and skills of its population. Our nation is facing a crisis in STEM related fields. Because of this, the campus offers a BOLD new approach to education featuring a creative focus in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math with a strong liberal arts foundation. […] The courses a student selects in middle and high school can significantly impact his or her options for the future. The student must take responsibility for making informed choices, paving the pathway to success in middle and high school and in life. It is our goal to help our students make informed and wise decisions regarding his/her middle and high school programming.”

The school provides an extensive list of courses where technology is infused, from Grade 6 through 12. Students have the opportunity to select from five career concentrations that include art and technical communication, computer science and applied mathematics, engineering and technical sciences, natural resources and energy, and health sciences. This may sound like a community college or university, but remember that students ages 11 to 18 are taking these courses, which is visionary and inspiring.

The Geographic Information Systems course at the STEM center is described as “an introduction to the concepts and uses of GIS. GIS is a system of computer software, hardware, and personnel designed to visualize, manipulate, analyze, and display spatial data. A GIS can create “Smart Maps” that links a database to a map. This allows individuals to view relationships, patterns, or trends that are not possible to see with traditional charts, graphs, and spreadsheets. Through computer lab tutorials and case studies, students will learn to use ArcGIS from Esri. Some topics include City and Regional Planning, Community and Economic Planning and Development, Housing Studies, Transit and Transportation Issues, Land Use, Historic and Archeological Studies, Crime Analysis and Policing, Emergency Management and Public Works Utilities, Census and Demographic Studies, Public Health, and Business uses including Marketing and Advertising.”

Double helix, human-powered sundial, and more geographic wonders at the STEM Center!

Double helix, human-powered sundial, and more geographic wonders at the STEM Center!

What’s more, geospatial reminders surround the students and faculty, thanks to Dr. Charles’ careful work with the school’s architects and builders.

Self portrait at the half-second grid etched into the flooring. Above me are the stars of the Northern Hemisphere in their correct relative positions, represented as LED lights, on the ceiling.

Latitude-longitude lines in the STEM school's floor!

Latitude-longitude lines in the STEM school’s floor!

There is even a DNA double-helix statue outside the front door of the building.

How might you promote GIS in STEM education?

-Joseph Kerski, Education Manager

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Creating and Giving a Presentation Using ArcGIS Online

Recently I was invited to give a keynote address at the 2011 GI-Forum at the University of Salzburg, and created a map in ArcGIS Online that I used as my guide to the local physical and cultural geography. I shared it so that the other conference attendees could also use it, on I described this procedure in a recent blog entry but then went one step further: I used the same tool to create the keynote presentation that I gave at the conference. This presentation contains 57 slides and by searching for “GI-Forum” on ArcGIS Online, you can view it and use it to spark your own presentation ideas.

I varied the basemaps and methods throughout the presentation to keep the audience interested, and I found that ArcGIS Online offered a number of significant advantages. First, since ArcGIS Online is map-based, I could tie each of the points in my presentation to points on the maps. Second, the dynamic nature of the tool meant that at any point during the presentation, I could respond to questions from the audience and zoom to any location on the Earth, changing the basemaps or adding new content to respond to the question. After responding, I could easily resume the slides I had set up ahead of time. Third, I can now respond to those who are contacting me to find out if they can view it, simply by pointing them to ArcGIS Online. Fourth, I could easily go back and forth between my presentation and the local map with points of interest that I had created using the same tool.

Fifth, as we all know when working with technology, the unexpected can and will happen. On a practical level, using ArcGIS Online for the presentation saved the day when my computer would not communicate with the projector in the lecture hall at the University of Salzburg. At the last minute, we substituted a computer from one of the faculty, and because the presentation used ArcGIS Online, I did not have to worry about transferring files or whatever presentation software they might have had on the university’s computer. Rather, I was able to access and give my presentation right away!

How might you or your students use ArcGIS Online for an upcoming presentation or report, and how might you assess that presentation in the classroom?

- Joseph Kerski, Education Manager

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Reflections on the Annual Teachers Teaching Teachers GIS (T3G) Institutes

Many of us in the field of GIS believe that the geographic way of viewing the world and geospatial tools are too valuable and useful to be confined to one discipline. Rather, GIS needs to be embedded into business, planning, environmental science, mathematics, engineering, history, language arts, biology, chemistry, archaeology, and others. We also believe that GIS needs to be included in every person’s formal education from primary to university level and offered in informal settings such as libraries, museums, and in after-school programs. Who will undertake the task of making all of this happen? Educators committed to the value of GIS, who understand its capabilities, and are equipped to train and present the GIS method and framework to a wide variety of audiences and settings, that’s who.

Empowering educators to spread GIS throughout education has been the focus of the Teachers Teaching Teachers GIS (T3G) institutes at Esri headquarters in Redlands, California. Three institutes, co-sponsored each June by Esri and GeoTechCenter, have enabled participants to promote and support GIS in other departments, other educational institutions, in their local community, and in their professional networks. Unlike events that focus on “learning how to do more with GIS,” the T3G institutes focus on “helping other educators use GIS effectively.” Participants work through a series of hands-on activities to improve their technical skills in online and desktop ArcGIS tools. This includes work with geoprocessing, spatial statistics, Landsat imagery, 2D and 3D tools, and ArcGIS Online maps and presentations. Yet the institutes go beyond the improvement of GIS skills to how best to teach with GIS in different educational settings, from online courses to semester-long face-to-face courses to short workshops. Participants create a project where they spatially analyze data they collect at the Gilman Historical Ranch, including elevation, weather, invasive species, bird nests, wildfires, tree health, and more, and presented the results using ArcGIS Explorer, ArcGIS Online, and ArcGIS desktop.

The 30 attendees each year range from 4-H coordinators to university professors and librarians to secondary school instructors. The institute teaching team includes educational consultants Kathryn Keranen and Lyn Malone, Amy Work from the Institute for the Application of Geospatial Technology, Anita Palmer and Roger Palmer from GIS ETC, and Esri education staff Charlie Fitzpatrick, Laura Bowden, and Joseph Kerski. The teaching team models different instructional activities, including gallery walks, instructor-led training, independent investigations, group projects, a “geo-news” broadcast, a game show “Deal With It” competition, and other methods.

Applicants interested in applying for the 2012 T3G institute should have a strong interest in training other educators in the use of GIS in instruction, developing curricular materials that help educators and students use GIS, and promoting GIS to educational administrators and policymakers. Preference will be given to educators from various settings who have demonstrated experience in three areas: Using GIS, teaching with computers, and providing professional development for educators.

Watch for announcements, and please consider applying to the 2012 T3G institute or telling your colleagues about it.

-Joseph Kerski, Education Manager

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New Series of GPS-to-GIS Videos

I have created a new series of videos on the Esri Education Team’s YouTube Channel and on my geography channel that describes the process of gathering field data with GPS and mapping and analyzing it with GIS in educational contexts. The videos feature explanations and demonstrations not only on the technical procedures involved with gathering data on locations and characteristics of data and then analyzing its spatial patterns, but also the pedagogical advantages to using these technologies within the context of spatial thinking in instruction. In short, they focus not only the “hows”, but also the “whys”.

Topics covered are suitable for all levels of education, formal and informal, in multiple disciplines ranging from environmental studies to geography, history, mathematics, and earth and biological sciences. The videos span multiple tools, from the Minnesota DNR Garmin program to ArcGIS desktop, ArcGIS Explorer, ArcGIS Online, and ArcGIS Explorer Online. The videos span multiple methodologies and discuss the merits of each. For example, one discussion illustrates the advantages of keying in field data and coordinates versus cabling the information to a computer, and the advantages of linking maps to multimedia taken from a standard camera versus that taken from a smartphone. Embedded throughout the series are issues of data and project management, scale, accuracy, precision, metadata, and appropriateness. At present, the videos include the following 25 titles with more to be added in the future:

  1. Introduction and goals of the video series.
  2. Considerations before embarking on a field data collection project.
  3. Collecting positions and attributes in the field with GPS and other devices.
  4. Considerations during and after conducting field investigations.
  5. Advantages to using a combination of GPS and GIS in the educational curriculum.
  6. Reflections on which tools and methods are most appropriate for use in specific educational settings.
  7. Cabling location and attribute data to a computer using the Minnesota DNR Garmin application; software considerations.
  8. Cabling location and attribute data to a computer using the Minnesota DNR Garmin application; hardware considerations.
  9. The difference between GPS tracks and waypoints.
  10. Accessing and using GPS-gathered waypoints and tracks.
  11. Mapping and analyzing field data with ArcGIS Online.
  12. Mapping and analyzing field data with ArcGIS Explorer Online
  13. Mapping and analyzing field data with ArcGIS Explorer virtual globe.
  14. Mapping and analyzing field data with ArcGIS Explorer virtual globe, part 2: Completed project: A Mojave Desert Joshua Tree example.
  15. Mapping and analyzing field data with ArcGIS desktop (version 10).
  16. Mapping and analyzing field data with ArcGIS desktop (version 10), part 2: Symbolizing and linking to multimedia.
  17. Using a smartphone for location, photographs, and video in gathering and mapping data.
  18. Using a smartphone for location, photographs, and video in gathering and mapping data, part 2: How to email photographs and videos from the field via a smartphone to a GIS to map and analyze it spatially.
  19. Using a smartphone for location, photographs, and video in gathering and mapping data, part 3: How to automatically geotag photographs and videos from the field via a smartphone to a GIS to map and analyze it spatially.
  20. Using a smartphone for location, photographs, and video in gathering and mapping data, part 4: Discussion and demonstration of how to automatically geotag photographs and videos from the field via a smartphone and a GeoRSS feed to map and analyze it spatially in a GIS.
  21. The positional accuracy of a smartphone versus a GPS receiver. Results of experiments comparing the positional accuracy of these two devices.
  22. Drawing with GPS, Mapping with GIS. Introduces and demonstrates how and why to draw letters and shapes with your GPS and mapping them with GIS.
  23. Dragging and dropping GPX files into ArcGIS Online locally.
  24. Dragging and dropping GPS files into ArcGIS Online internationally.
  25. Dragging and dropping text files with latitude-longitude coordinates into ArcGIS Online.


How might you be able to use these videos, and more importantly, these methodologies, in your instruction?

- Joseph Kerski, Education Manager

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The Top 5 Skills Needed to be Successful in a GIS Career

In a few weeks, I am giving a webinar entitled “The Top 5 Skills you need to be successful in a GIS career.” Because this is a topic that has been covered by dozens of articles in GIS journals and magazines over the past 20 years, I aim to do something different that stems from my educational work with the GIS community over that time.

I argue that the first skill is curiosity. Successful GIS people are curious not just about geospatial technologies, but they are also curious about the world. They ponder spatial relationships at work in phenomena from the local to global scale, ranging from demographics, land use, and traffic patterns in their own community to natural hazards, biodiversity, and climate around the world. This curiosity fuels the tenacity that is often necessary to solve problems using GIS. This curiosity is also essential because it helps frame geographic questions, and asking the right kind of questions is the first step in the geographic inquiry process that is key to successful work in GIS.

The second skill is the ability to work with data. Those successful in GIS have developed critical thinking skills regarding data. They not only know where to find data, but understand metadata so well that they know the benefits and limitations of working with each type of data. They know the most effective means to gather, analyze, and display geographic data through a GIS.

The third skill is understanding geographic foundations. Successful GIS practitioners know the fundamentals behind all spatial phenomena, including map projections, datums, topological relationships, spatial data models, database theory and methods, ways to classify data, how to effectively use spatial statistics and geoprocessing methods, and more.

Adaptability is the fourth skill essential for success in the GIS field. Now more than ever, as the field of GIScience is evolving rapidly in terms of its consumer audience, sensor network, functionality, the platforms by which it can be accessed on the desktop, mobile devices, and cloud, and in many more ways, successful GIS professionals need to be adaptable and flexible. They need to be not only willing to change but accept and embrace change as an essential and necessary part of the field. They are lifelong learners.

The fifth skill is good communications. Those successful in GIS know how to use GIS and other presentation tools to communicate their results to a wide variety of audiences. They know how to effectively employ cartographic elements, but they also know how to clearly communicate the results of their analysis in oral and written reports, video, face to face, online, and via other means.

Do you suppose these skills will become more important or less important as geospatial technologies grow in their impact on society in the years ahead? Do you agree with this list? If not, which five skills do you believe are the most important? How can the Geospatial Technology Competency Model inform such a list?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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GIS and the Ill-Structured Problem

Educational research shows that students can learn both about content and about thinking strategies by working through what are known as “ill-structured” problems. The ill-structured problem is fundamental to problem-based learning (PBL), where students probe deeply into issues, searching for connections, grappling with uncertainty, and using knowledge to fashion solutions. As Stepien and Gallagher (1993) state, “As with real problems, students encountering ill-structured problems will not have most of the relevant information needed to solve the problem at the outset. Nor will they know exactly what actions are required for resolution. After they tackle the problem, the definition of the problem may change. And even after they propose a solution, the students will never be sure they have made the right decision. They will have had the experience of having to make the best possible decision based on the information at hand. They will also have had a stake in the problem.”

In my work with educators and students over the years, I have found that GIS is very well suited to the ill-structured problem. In fact, oftentimes, the best GIS problems are those that fit at least a few of the “ill-structured” criteria above. GIS was created to solve complex problems at multiple scales and from multiple viewpoints. Data in a GIS are imperfect, and are full of uncertainties, and students who work with them become critical consumers of data, an important 21st Century skill.

Students are often so used to a single “right” answer, and are initially baffled by PBL-based strategies and tools that engage those strategies such as GIS. Typically when I work with students using GIS, they ask me, “Is my map right?” In response, I ask them a question: “Does your map help you understand the problem or issue, and help you answer the questions being asked?” But, given time, they begin to understand that the issues they are grappling with are complex, and there might not be a single correct answer. Certainly, their final set of maps is not the end goal, but a means to an end in their inquiry-driven investigation.

For example, in the lesson that I created on analyzing the Hungary toxic flood of 2010 using ArcGIS Explorer, the environmental consequences of the flood are numerous, long-lasting, and occur at multiple scales. I ask the students to compare this incident with other toxic spills around the world, ending the lesson with asking students to analyze sources of toxins in their own community. Student answers will vary depending on where they live and how they judge the severity of different toxic spills around the world. If they can justify their answers, and back up their answers with data, including spatial data analyzed with their GIS tools, then I believe that their answers deserve high marks.

Stepien, William, and Shelagh Gallagher. 1993. Problem-based learning: As authentic as it gets. Authentic Learning 50(7): 25-28.

How can you design ill-structured problems using spatial analysis and GIS?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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