Tag Archives: Projects

Ji Hua Mei You Bian Hua Kuai: Plans Can’t Keep Up with Changes

As we enter a new year, we on the Esri education team look forward to working with you, the global GIS education community, on supporting the use of spatial thinking and geotechnologies to foster deep learning experiences throughout the world.  A Chinese proverb, “Ji Hua Mei You Bian Hua Kuai” or “Ji hua gan bu shan bian hua” seems appropriate to quote as we move forward as a community.  Ji hua refers to plans, bian hua to changes, and mei you means “not”.  The meaning of the proverb is, therefore, “Plans Can’t Keep Up with Changes.”

Many nuances associated with this proverb seem to me to be particularly meaningful with regards to GIS in education.  First and most obvious is that change is a constant part of our lives.  The world of public and private education at all levels is rapidly changing in terms of priorities, learners’ demographics, and available technologies and methods.  Teaching and learning with GIS is also rapidly transforming as GIS becomes viable on mobile devices and web-based maps, apps, and services continue to open doors through which students can enter for learning opportunities in schools and universities and career opportunities once they graduate from those schools and universities.  The open data movement, citizen science, and cloud-based GIS all expanded many-fold last year and will continue to do so.  The recent upgrade to ArcGIS Online, including the viewing and filtering of tables and the ability to create time-enabled feature services, is a perfect example of the expanding array of tools that can be effectively used to teach in and about a wide variety of subjects, students, and settings.

But I believe there are subtler aspects to this proverb that are appropriate to GIS in education as well.  While things may happen that are out of our control, we still need a plan to keep us focused.  We on the Esri education team will continue to develop courses, curriculum, data, and other resources, conduct and foster professional development opportunities and research on GIS in education, and communicate through a variety of face to face and online methods and a variety of stakeholders about the need for spatial thinking and GIS in education.  We do all of these things in partnership with you, the GIS education community.  Adhering to the proverb also means that we need to prepare for and predict upcoming changes as we create our plan, and so we need to keep close watch on and anticipate changes in technologies and education.  Finally, following the proverb also means that our plan needs to include long-term and short-term  goals, and include step-by-step details to deal with the changes that will surely come.   We need to hold fast to our “big dreams” of spatially literate societies, and yet take concrete steps to help us get there.

What plans do you have for GIS in education over the next year?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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On BioBlitz, Fieldwork, and Web-based GIS

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in BioBlitz 2012 at Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA. BioBlitz is a 10-year partnership between the US National Park Service and National Geographic with three goals: (1) Highlight the diversity of national parks by conducting a taxonomic inventory; (2) public outreach; (3) to inspire young people to pursue careers in science and geography. During one day, I went into the field to collect and categorize macroinvertebrates in a beautiful montane stream (shown here in ArcGIS Online) with 40 students aged 11 to 13.

Collecting macroinvertebrates in stream.

After collecting the data over a period of five hours, the data was identified by the students according to a detailed classification chart.

The data was then input into a web-GIS called FieldScope, created by National Geographic and based on Esri technology, and viewable that same evening by anyone on the web.

It was wonderful to work with our partners at National Geographic and in particular, with students, and four things struck me through this event. First, it is important to get students into the field repeatedly, and at young ages, to provide rich experiences and a love for the outdoors and the environment. During the next day, I met environmental and youth advocate Juan Martinez, who had a powerful experience with an Eco Club in south Los Angeles that changed his life. I was impressed by the high quality and collaborative nature of the students’ work. They were interested not only in getting wet collecting data, but they were just as interested in classifying the data. In fact, they were so immersed that nobody happened to notice a bear about 100 meters away, documented by a photograph that another group showed our group later that day!

Adding citizen science data to FieldScope.

Second, powerful things can happen when students and professional scientists collaborate, as evident here and with such efforts as GeoMentor, GIS Corps, and Project Budburst. BioBlitz brought together hundreds of students, over 100 scientists, and thousands of the general public whose two days of data collection resulted in over 400 bird, fungi, macroinvertebrate, animal, and vascular plant species that had never been documented in this particular national park before. Third, the event reinforced the concepts that Jill Clark and I wrote about in the book The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data: As citizen science projects gain in popularity, enabled by powerful, easy-to-use web-GIS and field collection instruments, how can data collected by a wide variety of people be managed and cataloged that is useful and allows people to understand how that data was collected, categorized, and mapped?

What are some meaningful field experiences that you have had?

-Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Fun with GIS 124: Problem-Based Learning at Esri International User Conference

At the 2012 Esri International User Conference, 14,000 people thunderously applauded stars of problem-based learning (PBL). At the opening plenary session, four students stepped out on stage and confidently displayed their experience with GIS, gained during just their senior year of high school. Their work was so real, so powerful, and so like what GIS professionals do that the demos were sifted in among those by other users, instead of isolated as a special student group. You can see their presentations, and the teacher’s summary here: Esri 2012 UC Plenary Videos
Choose “Mid-morning”, see “21:40-26:35″, “43:50-47:00″, “61:08-65:30″

Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA is a good school. These are bright and inquisitive students, and the teacher masterfully weaves together relevant content, powerful technology, and incrementally greater challenges. But the model of PBL with GIS used by these and hundreds of students across the Virginia Geospatial Semester program is the real star.

In school after school, teacher after teacher help students build skills in GIS by tackling real-world challenges. They construct maps of things around them, analyze the patterns and relationships they see in daily life, and struggle just like adults to integrate information and derive sensible answers in complex situations for which there is no “cookbook answer.” With a steady diet of such experiences, they build a disposition for challenges. Combined with the technical savvy and creativity of youth, this is serious power. In the hours and days following the WLHS students’ presentations, everyone I met agreed that these students were ready for college and career.

Across the US, employers and politicians (save only for one party in one state) clamor for students to have 21st century skills, including managing and thinking critically about all kinds of information, collaborating, communicating, and working with powerful tools. Lucky kids whose teachers or after-school activity leaders employ PBL with GIS get to practice this even from a young age. These kids will survive and thrive tomorrow, as the thunderous applause at the Esri Conference attests.

Are students in your community preparing for tomorrow by tackling real-world challenges without a cookbook? Can they demonstrate it using technology beyond a Number 2 pencil?

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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From Observations, Curiosity, and the Spatial Perspective to Asking Questions

In my last column, I argued that one’s senses, curiosity, and the spatial perspective are essential for understanding our world and for making the most out of field experiences. In this column I wish to make the case that these three things guide the questions you ask. And the questions that you ask are most important thing about any investigation, and about learning.

I also believe that you must be comfortable with the fact that in our complex world, some of the questions cannot be answered without additional investigation, and that some of the questions indeed may never be fully answered. In our world of instant information and standardized testing, quick and easy answers are difficult for many students—and sometimes, instructors—to accept.

Consider a recent video I made on the beach on the coast of the Caribbean Sea where I asked a series of geographic questions. I considered issues in physical geography including sediment transport along coasts, beach sand, storm surges, and hurricanes, and issues in cultural geography including the pros and cons of developing resorts along coasts. I could partly answer some questions I posed in a few minutes, while others I left open for students and instructors to discuss in class.

The questions you ask determine what data and information you will collect, what devices you require, and what methods you will use. We certainly have more means of collecting data than ever before. I believe that geographers from Eratosthenes to Davis would have been thrilled to have and use the tools we have today. We also have an expanding number of ways to map field-collected data. Some of these ways even allow for something that many of us have longed for years to be able to do—to collaboratively and simultaneously gather data in their real-world coordinates by a group of students while out in the field, and have that data automatically appear on a continuously updating map. These can be done using the Student Data Mapper or from shared Google spreadsheets as developed by my colleague Tom Baker, or via editable feature services using ArcGIS 10.1 and ArcGIS Online as shown in the image below.

Yet unless we are curious, using our senses, asking insightful, thoughtful questions, and using the spatial perspective, the effectiveness of even these tools will be limited. What are some of the means you have used to foster good questions to be grappled with?

- Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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New Book: Tribal GIS: Supporting Native American Decision Making

A new book from Esri Press entitled Tribal GIS: Supporting Native American Decision Making, will be published in June 2012. In it, tribal leaders tell their stories about implementing and using GIS to address their unique challenges as sovereign Nations. The book covers applications in natural resources and the environment, transportation, cultural and historical preservation, economic development, health, public safety, agriculture, and perhaps most interesting to the GIS education community, two chapters on K-12 and higher education. Showing how tribal governments responsible for the stewardship of their land and resources and the health and well-being of their People use enterprise GIS to make decisions, Tribal GIS supports tribes new to GIS and those with GIS experience. It also will be useful for the general GIS community, showing the many scales and disciplines in which GIS can be applied.

It was an honor to work on this book with so many visionary people who are making a positive difference in the lives of people, in their communities and on their lands, and beyond. The book includes dozens of stories written by educators, scientists, administrators, managers, and others, showing the diversity of their backgrounds but also a common vision for the benefits that spatial analysis and GIS bring to their everyday decision making. Editors of the book include Anne Taylor, who coordinates Esri’s Tribal program, David Gadsden, who coordinates Esri’s nonprofit organization program, Joseph Kerski, who serves in Esri’s education program, and Heather Warren, who is the marketing coordinator for the federal government industry at Esri.

The education chapters include stories such as students at the Alamo Navajo School collecting water well location and water quality information for the tribal government, students at Santa Fe Indian School measuring soil erosion and analyzing land use, students at Haskell Indian Nations University researching the geology of Antarctica and developing an accessibility map for their own campus, and much more.

Space does not permit me to say too much here, but the stories speak for themselves. Pick up a copy of the book, read these stories, and share them with your students. How have the spatial perspective and GIS made a positive difference and aided with decision making? How might you be able to use these stories to generate ideas for your own GIS-based projects?

–Joseph Kerski, Esri Education Manager

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Flipping It: An Instructional Alternative for GIS in the Class

A few years ago a couple of Colorado chemistry teachers realized that they were spending incredible amounts of time preparing make-up work and documenting the day’s instruction for students who were out sick. To help curb this time problem, they began recording their instruction and placing instructional video (e.g. narrated PowerPoint), class exercises, interactive simulations and other materials online every day – as a regular component of their instructional preparations. What they found was that not only did the resources help the absent student but also students who attended class leveraged the online materials as an opportunity to review. Today, the art and practice of the flipped classroom has evolved. With the day’s instruction shifted to an online format for evening study by students, the 45-minute class period has opened up, allowing time for collaborative projects, deeper, open-ended investigations, or concentrated study of a particularly sticky topic. The Kahn Academy is one popular implementation of pre-built materials, potentially useful for a flipped learning environment.

With the advent of a variety of web GIS tools (like ArcGIS Online) and an explosion of existing instructional video on basic GIS activities (YouTube or ArcGIS videos), the flipped classroom may be a great approach.

While creating new instructional video can be very time-consuming, carefully plotting out the best way to explain a concept, the best examples, and the right formative assessment, the payoffs can be huge (best practices: meta-analysis and practical tips). Teachers using flipped models of instruction report having more time to spend directly responding to students, stronger levels of student engagement, and more time for projects. What a great opportunity to use GIS to launch a class wide investigation of any number of environmental issues or sociological studies. ArcGIS Online can be used to both teach basic concepts in the evening and serve as the collaborative focal point during the day. So whether you’re teaching a STEM subject, geography, or anything else, consider trying a flipped classroom – even for part of the instructional period and explore where you and GIS can take your students.

- Tom Baker, Esri Education Manager

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Fun with GIS #100: Getting Started

“How do I start?” That’s what people ask before beginning to take pictures, play a musical instrument, drive a new type of vehicle, swim, or use GIS in education. For the latter, my advice is simple: ArcGIS Online. Students and teachers alike can begin making interesting maps in seconds with ArcGIS Online. New options can be discovered and practiced easily, building thinking skills, technical capacity, and background knowledge.

When making a map, one’s first instinct is usually “Let me see where I live.” Imagery is a useful starting point, because it looks familiar, and ArcGIS Online offers two different imagery basemaps so, right away, one can explore and ask questions about differences in “look.” But imagery alone is insufficient; one needs to add landmarks, labels, and “thematic descriptors.” With ArcGIS Online, it is easy to engage professionally prepared reference and analytical data with which to enhance contemplation of a broad range of topics and questions.

Such mapmaking builds the most essential capacities for understanding the world: locational awareness, pattern recognition, and a sense of data. Being an effective baseball player is not simply a matter of throwing, catching, and hitting a round object; it requires a sense of the game, the landscape, the rules. Using GIS requires a sense of the world local to global, a grasp of diverse elements in different places, the ways these can be represented and melded, and how the data can be analyzed. But using GIS doesn’t just require these, it also fosters them. With ArcGIS Online, learners from elementary school on up can quickly merge basemaps, operational layers, and personal data to represent and analyze phenomena. The concepts supported by these skills are essential for doing any more technologically complex geographic analysis, such as working with ArcGIS Desktop.

Educators getting started have a special opportunity — a free short online class designed just for you! You can do it in an evening and have time left over to figure out how to modify the next day’s class. See “Teaching with GIS: Intro to Using GIS in the Classroom.”

For educators and mentors who want to help students use GIS, start with ArcGIS Online. Emphasize maps of personal relevance, and encourage analysis — classification, symbolization by attribute, selection by rule — to clarify patterns and relationships. Promote investment with projects requiring research; foster critical thinking via frequent construction and analysis of one’s own data; maximize feedback with collaborative work; and use presentation to peers and others for both instruction and inspiration.

When students — or educators — grasp the power of geographic thinking and careful analysis of spatial data, they have the fundamentals in place to support a move into more robust technologies. Getting a good start, with an appropriate first step, goes a long way to making any mission a success.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Fun with GIS #96: See the Power

Kids get GIS. Even young kids can grasp the power of maps if they get to use them for projects. In the last week or so, I’ve had the delight and honor of visiting an elementary school and a high school where both use GIS in project-based learning.

At the elementary school, I watched and listened to students as young as third grade give reports using ArcGIS Explorer Online. Students and teachers learned together and shared learning constantly. The school works with the Nature Mapping program, and students shared maps about things in their community and beyond. Mapping, they said, was easy and fun. Younger kids talked about looking forward to making maps.



Charlie learns from third grader about phenomena in the community.
(Photo courtesy of NatureMapping Foundation.)

At the high school, I watched and listened to teachers and students again mapping data they had gathered. A series of projects were underway, integrating handhelds and ArcPad, desktops and ArcMap, and laptops and ArcGIS Online. They were documenting lake depths to support wetland restoration projects; tracking various species to study environments, ranges, and behaviors; and mapping students to explore improvements to transportation routes.



Teacher and students work to interpret the location of a creature
based on triangulation data gathered by students.

In both schools, multiple educators rely on the power of projects that the students can sink their teeth into. They talk about how mapping the data helps students understand and integrate concepts and skills from all their classwork. In each case, the students take greater ownership of their learning, and build the critical foundational skills of describing a challenge, analyzing data, and working to solve a problem that may not be easily tackled.

If we want young people to build those critical thinking skills on which our collective future will rely, we need to give them practice in meaningful ways, from a young age onward. They can handle it, and indeed crave it.

- Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri Education Manager

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Using Mobile GIS with Girl Scout Cookie Sales


I’m always looking for good opportunities to teach my kids about GIS. Recently I was presented with a great opportunity to do just this when my daughter, Sarah, was selling Girl Scout cookies. Sarah was very excited to sell lots of cookies so we headed out in our coats to sell to our neighborhood. The first day we had some sales, some “no’s”, and many folks not home. The next day we were excited to get selling again but we had a problem. What if my wife was going to take Sarah out to sell cookies? How would I easily communicate to her which people declined and which were not home? This would get even more difficult if we didn’t get to everyone the next day. All we needed was a simple map where we could draw all the houses where people either bought or declined. I decided to see if we could use ArcGIS to solve this problem and teach Sarah a bit along the way.

Sarah helped by reading off the cookie names while I added them as fields to a geodatabase feature class. Each field would store a count of the number of cookies purchased at that location. I added a couple more fields for information like the sales girl (Sarah), customer name, total boxes sold, etc. I then created a simple map that showed sales in red and “no’s” in gray. Then I published the map with feature access to ArcGIS Server and added the resulting map services to a new web map in ArcGIS.com. Together we used the find feature in the ArcGIS.com map to find all the addresses from the day before and add all our sales to the map. The resulting map looked like this.

At this point Sarah started to understand how the places we walked the day before related to the map.

Before we headed out to sell cookies again I loaded this web map on my iPhone using the ArcGIS for iOS application. I showed Sarah how she could tap on any of the existing sales to see what was purchased there.


Then whenever we left a house, we took an extra minute to enter the new data. We used the data collection feature of the ArcGIS for iOS application to enter the GPS and sales information. I was really surprised at how quickly my seven year old daughter picked this up.


I showed her how to enter the first location and she basically took it from there. That is until her fingers got cold, then she delegated data entry to her father.
So Sarah got a good understanding of how to collect the data and how it could help her quickly find the houses that we still needed to visit. After all the orders came in, we used ArcGIS again to help deliver the cookies. We loaded the wagon and Sarah used the iPhone to tell us where to go and what to deliver.

Once we delivered cookies and received payment, she would take care of marking the customer as paid in the GIS. Since everyone wasn’t home the first time we went out, we then needed an easy way to quickly show where we needed to deliver cookies. To make this easy I opened the ArcGIS.com map in ArcGIS Explorer Online and built a query called “Needs Delivery”.

Sarah could then use the query in the ArcGIS for iOS application to see where we needed to go. This was a great teaching opportunity. Sarah learned that a GIS lets you ask the map questions.

Using ArcGIS.com and ArcGIS for iOS was a great way to teach my daughter about GIS. For Sarah I think her favorite part was the arrow that showed up on our GPS location showing our current direction on the map. For me I it was a fun use of the technology and a fun time with Sarah.

Editor’s Note: Additional resources have been posted that may be of interest to readers:
Girl Scout Cookie Information Model -
Mapping Girl Scout Cookies Presentation (pptx)

- Tom Brenneman, Esri Solution Engineer

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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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