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Two Necessary Approaches
By Joseph J. Kerski, Ph.D., Education Industry Curriculum

Teaching about GIS and teaching with GIS

Students from grade school to college can benefit from developing spatial-thinking skills. GIS is a powerful tool for fostering these skills. It is also a teaching tool for visualizing complex spatial relationships in many subject areas.

Beginning in the 1960s, GIS quietly transformed decision making in universities, government, and industry by bringing spatial analysis together with digital geographic data to a computing environment. The earth's river systems, climate, natural hazards, population, geology, vegetation, soils, land use, and other characteristics can be analyzed in a GIS using computerized maps, aerial photographs, satellite images, databases, and graphs. By analyzing phenomena about the earth's hydrosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere, a GIS helps people understand patterns, linkages, and trends about the planet.

Educators can use GIS to foster spatial reasoning and critical thinking in students in elementary and secondary schools and at colleges and universities.

Teaching with GIS is emphasized at the elementary and secondary levels. GIS helps teach concepts and skills in earth science, geography, chemistry, biological science, history, and mathematics courses to students at these levels. GIS can also be used in nonformal education settings such as museums, libraries, and after-school programs.

Teaching about GIS dominates at the community college and university level. At this level, courses in the methods and theory of GIS are taught in geography, engineering, business, environmental studies, geology, and other disciplines.

GIS is used as an essential research tool in all institutes of higher education in geography, demography, geology, business, sociology, biology, and many other disciplines.

The U.S. Labor Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) stated that the most effective way to teach skills is in context. SCANS competencies include identifying resources, working with others, using information, and understanding complex and changing interrelationships. Implementing GIS in the curriculum may encourage students to examine data from a variety of fields.

In 2004, the U.S. Secretary of Labor named geotechnologies as one of the three fields most in demand for 21st century decision making. The following year, the U.S. Department of Labor began funding programs for community colleges and other institutions to improve the number and breadth of GIS courses and resources offered. The National Academy of Sciences report Learning to Think Spatially—GIS as a Support System in the K–12 Curriculum, published in 2006, emphasized the value of spatial thinking in geography and other disciplines and the need for cultivating spatial thinking throughout the curriculum.

With the publication of national content standards—such as the Geography Education Standards Project 1994, the National Council for the Social Studies National Task Force for Social Studies Standards 1994, and the International Society for Technology in Education 2000— educators nationwide have been moving toward a model of instruction that emphasizes a hands-on, interdisciplinary, research-based learning experience. The national geography standard states, "the power of a GIS is that it allows us to ask questions of data." Students use this inquiry approach to form research questions, develop a methodology, gather and analyze data, and draw conclusions. Teaching about GIS is important in the creation of a workforce empowered with GIS technical skills that are critically needed in society.

Teaching with GIS is important in helping students develop the ability to think holistically about problems and using spatial analysis in solving them. Natural hazards, crime, terrorism, water availability and quality, biodiversity loss, climate change, urban sprawl, energy needs, and many more—problems that are affecting individuals' lives in the 21st century—are growing in geographic extent and severity. Every one of these problems has a geographic component. GIS must be included in education to empower the decision makers of tomorrow to grapple with these issues.

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