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Jumpstarting GIS Use in the Classroom
By Deborah Alongi Johnson and Steven Moore
Center for Image Processing in Education
Editor's Note: The Center for Image Processing in Education (CIPE) has developed instructional materials that use ArcView GIS to help teachers and students in grades six through 10 learn about science, mathematics, and technology. Using CIPE's guided discovery approach, students acquire data, analyze problems, formulate solutions, and present findings using maps, posters, and other methods. CIPE also conducts professional development workshops that teach educators the theory and practice of GIS as well as techniques for developing their own lesson projects. This article discusses why GIS is a powerful teaching tool and what types of materials are needed by educators to increase the use of GIS.
Developing GIS-Based Curriculums
CIPE is a nonprofit educational organization that promotes computer-aided visualization as a tool for teaching and learning. CIPE conducts workshops and develops instructional materials that use image processing (IP) and GIS technologies as platforms for teaching about science, social studies, mathematics, and technology. Over the past two years, CIPE has developed a series of lessons that utilize ArcView GIS as a tool for teaching standards-based science and social studies content. These lessons form the basis for a two-day professional development workshop for teachers entitled Discovering GIS. The workshop is offered in association with regional educator conferences and on-site at local schools or districts. CIPE plans to continue its GIS instructional materials development with a full complement of earth systems science, life science, environmental science, geography, and marketing/business lessons that incorporate mathematics and social science content.
GIS is a computer-based technology for viewing and manipulating any kind of data that can be referenced geographically. It gives researchers and planners the ability to quantify and visually display interrelationships among geographically referenced biological, social, geochemical, physical, atmospheric, and other variables. "What if?" and "How come?" questions are easily asked and answered with GIS. Powerful database management and display features allow complex combinations of scientific data to be distilled into easily interpretable maps and graphics. Because of its great analytical power, GIS is currently used as a research and planning tool in a variety of industries including agriculture (e.g., for precision planting and application of pesticides and fertilizer); environmental planning and research (e.g., to conduct environmental impact assessments and groundwater contamination modeling); forestry (e.g., to model wildfires and plan harvests); and petroleum and mining exploration (e.g., to identify potential locations of oil and mineral deposits).
Pioneering educators have successfully used GIS to teach science and mathematics content. High school students in Detroit have used GIS to map lead contamination in household drinking water and attempted to correlate standardized test scores of elementary students to lead contamination. In another project, middle school students in Boston, Massachusetts, investigated a variety of environmental conditions in the Muddy River. They employed GIS to answer questions about the overgrowth of phragmites (marsh reeds); low levels of dissolved oxygen and eutrophication; leaking underground storage tanks; sewer overflows; illegal cross-connections between sewers and storm drains; and contamination with fecal coliform bacteria.
Transportable Materials Needed
Through its educational discount program, Esri has made GIS software easily affordable to schools. With such a favorable purchasing program, one would anticipate widespread implementation of the technology. But mainstream educators have not widely embraced GIS. According to a needs analysis survey conducted by CIPE during one of its recent workshops, the primary obstacle faced by educators wishing to use GIS is time. Most educators simply do not have time in their busy professional lives to self-learn a new technology. Although a significant percentage (approximately 40 percent) of the educators found the software difficult to learn, the majority did not. Nearly all educators in the study thought their students could easily learn GIS, particularly if instructional materials were available to lead them through the process. Most educators felt that administrators at their school supported the use of GIS and that they had adequate access to computers.
To implement a new technology in their classrooms, teachers need support. They do not have sufficient time to master the mechanics of a new piece of software, look for data that their students can use, and prepare the data for use in the classroom. Mainstream educators wishing to use GIS need training and teaching materials that are relevant to their subject areas and in a format that is easily transferable to their classrooms. Unfortunately, such materials and training are largely unavailable. A search of the Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education (ENC 1999) yielded no comprehensive materials designed to help educators teach science and mathematics content with GIS. The meager GIS materials and training resources encountered during the search, in general, were very specialized and largely left educators to their own devices for learning and implementing the technology.
Meeting the Need
To promote adoption of GIS technology as an instructional tool in the nation's middle and secondary schools and support mainstream teachers as they explore the new technology, CIPE plans to develop instructional materials with the following characteristics:
[The accompanying article, Why Did the Sheep Cross the Road, describes a starter lesson developed by CIPE.]
- Utilize a guided-discovery approach that incrementally discloses data to students as they become comfortable dealing with the unknowns of science and inquiry. This approach to science education supports and simplifies students' tasks. Guided discovery can facilitate conceptual change, excite student interest, overcome negative attitudes toward science, and provide a meaningful, hands-on experience with the process of scientific discovery (Nissani 1996).
- Lessons will be designed to support the National Science Education Standards (NSES) (NAS/NRC 1996), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards (NCTM 1999), National Geography Standards, and the National Educational Standards for Students (NESS) (ISTE 1999) of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).
- ArcView GIS software will be utilized as a research tool to support the primary science, math, and geography instructional objectives. ArcView GIS skills will be incorporated into the lessons as tools for discovering content but not as primary objectives. Utilization of real data and a real research tool will provide students with experience in performing an authentic task that bears a strong resemblance to tasks performed in a real work setting.
- Two types of lessons--starter and project--will be developed. Short, focused starter lessons present case studies along with the necessary data and project files already prepared. Longer, more open-ended project lessons are templates for teachers and students to gather their own data and create their own, localized GIS projects.
Looking to the Future
As noted previously, CIPE has begun to evaluate the needs of mainstream educators wishing to use GIS. A formal needs analysis survey was conducted at a GIS workshop conducted by CIPE during the winter of 1999. In general, the educators at the workshop voiced strong support for instructional materials and professional development workshops that combine packaged lessons with open-ended exploration of GIS data. They also strongly supported materials that make clear connections to the kinds of careers that employ GIS. CIPE plans to continue this needs analysis with educator focus groups, GIS specialists, and other key stakeholders.
As development of Discovering GIS progresses, the lessons will be field tested in representative classrooms across the country. Special consideration will be given to ensure that race, ethnicity, gender, regionalism and socioeconomic status are considered in selection of field test sites. Upon completion of field testing, the lessons will be revised to incorporate teacher and student feedback.
CIPE plans to disseminate its instructional materials through professional development workshops held in association with regional professional meetings and at schools throughout the United States (in-district workshops). In the future, when the complement of instructional materials reaches completion, Discovering GIS will be disseminated as a stand-alone product. For more information on these teaching materials, contact
Deborah Alongi Johnson
Director, Instructional Materials Development
Center for Image Processing in Education
4500 E. Speedway, Suite 58
Tucson, Arizona 85712
Web Site: www.evisual.org
Steve Moore is the executive director of the CIPE. He received a doctorate in renewable natural resources studies and sociology from the University of Arizona and has taught environmental studies, environmental biology, environmental management, and natural resources recreation at the college level. He has created and managed the development of instructional materials on remote sensing and geographic information systems for CIPE.
Deborah Alongi Johnson, director of instructional materials development at the CIPE, has a bachelor's of arts degree in science and education from Prescott College and a master's degree in biology from the University of Arizona. She has created and edited instructional materials utilizing GIS as a tool for learning and taught GIS workshops for educators.
A list of references is available here.