Minnesota Offers a Road Map for Expanding GIS Literacy in K–12 Schools
The value of the early introduction of students to geographic information system (GIS) technology is widely recognized by educators across the country.
"There are so many maps and graphics in our media and in our daily lives that require some spatial literacy," said Stacey Stark, associate director of U-Spatial at the University of Minnesota (UMN). "Learning how to read maps on a digital platform and interpreting interactive maps—it's good if we can start early; it's important for everyone."
Unfortunately, implementing GIS curriculum can be complex when there are so many demands in the classroom, so it can be hard to know where to start. To support schools in this work, Esri extends a free ArcGIS school bundle for any K–12 school or youth club, although many institutions don't take advantage of this offer. One state is leading the way with a high rate of licenses per 100 schools, a high rate of ArcGIS Online organizational account activations, and a high number of users per organizational account. Minnesota has become a trailblazer in the introduction of GIS technology to K–12 students and to K-12 teachers who use GIS to engage students with content in many subject areas. The state's impressive success is the result of a long journey of hard work, passion, and trial and error, yet today its story provides a clear template for other states to follow. There's a reason that good things are happening there.
Educators Coming Together
There are educators and officials to be found in every state who are interested in making GIS more widely available to students. For those in need of a place to begin, Minnesota's recipe for success comes down to teacher engagement, professional involvement, and support at the state level.
User Story Snapshot
Educators in the state of Minnesota have utilized Esri’s free ArcGIS school bundle and become a trailblazer in the introduction of GIS technology to K-12 students and teachers who use GIS to engage students with content in many subject areas.
• Minnesota’s recipe for success comes down to teacher engagement, professional involvement, and support at the state level.
• The MN GIS/LIS Consortium offers a source of innovation, support and mentorship for the growing GIS education community.
• The Minnesota Department of Education encourages schools statewide to utilize the software licenses from Esri to meet state education standards which formally incorporate GIS.
Minnesota's story started in 1985, when David Lanegran, a college geography professor and current co-coordinator of the Minnesota Alliance for Geographic Education (MAGE), began holding seasonal workshops where geography teachers could learn and share their ideas and techniques in geographic technology and education. It was then that one of the essential components of the state's success in supporting GIS learning was introduced—the connection and collaboration of educators across Minnesota with a shared interest in staying current with the use of GIS technology and cultivating GIS literacy among the state's students.
This culture of collaboration was strengthened in 1987, when MAGE was founded in cooperation with National Geographic. Still thriving today, MAGE is a formal organization of and for educators, providing geography-focused teaching resources. MAGE also offers a variety of workshops and events every year where participants can network and compare solid geography-focused instructional techniques, including the use of GIS tools available to everyone. More importantly, these events provide the opportunity for attendees to connect with their fellow instructors, nourishing the cohesive community of individuals committed to teaching solid geographic concepts and technology to the next generation.
The University of Minnesota, long an additional source of valuable support and GIS outreach, has recently increased its commitment to the geographic education community with the creation of the new UMN GIS in K–12 collaborative, a group dedicated to leveraging UMN expertise, research, infrastructure, and connections to advance GIS teaching resources for K–12 schools. Internally, the collaborative will foster the growth of interdisciplinary research and teaching with GIS in K–12 schools. Externally, the collaborative is providing a formal hub for statewide organizational partnerships to organize around. UMN provides a variety of services to the community, including an online resource hub for educators, technical support, and workshops.
Mentorship and Support
"We have a really engaged GIS professional organization, and a lot of GeoMentors come out of that group," said Stark. "There are a lot of professionals there that value education, and it contributes to this culture of geospatial literacy in K–12 schools."
A year after MAGE was launched, the state's growing emphasis on geographic technology and education gained steam with the creation of the Minnesota GIS/LIS (MN GIS/LIS) Consortium, a forum dedicated to making GIS news, information, training, and resources available to professional users of GIS. Minnesota now not only had a network of educators and educator-geared events promoting geographic awareness for the state's students but also the MN GIS/LIS Consortium, a source of innovation, support, and eventually mentorship for the growing K–12 GIS education community. MN GIS/LIS Consortium is a partner in the popular Minnesota on the Map Student Competition, which brings together students and mentors from across the state every year to share and be inspired by student-created mapping projects.
"I think having an activity to focus around, like the mapping contest, has been a connector for all these different organizations," said Stark. "It's a reason for GeoMentors to get into the classroom to help and a way for teachers to get excited with their students. The mapping contest is a great hub for all the activity to center around."
Investment at an official level is the final piece of the puzzle. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) encourages schools statewide to utilize the software licenses that Esri makes available for school use and has formally incorporated GIS instruction in some state education standards. These efforts have paved the way for educators to add GIS curriculum in the classroom.
"There is legitimacy in GIS for teachers just because it is in the state standards," said MAGE co-coordinator Kelly Swanson, who teaches at both Johnson High School and Metropolitan State University.
The MDE is also supportive of teachers who wish to participate in the MN GIS/LIS Consortium's annual K–12 Educator Day event, which features training workshops and seminars on how educators can include GIS advancements and techniques in their teaching plans. To ensure teachers are able to attend, the MN GIS/LIS Consortium offers funding and expense assistance for substitute teachers. Educators are not only free to attend but also encouraged and enabled with concrete support.
"Attending the Minnesota GIS/LIS Consortium Educator Day opened my eyes to the power GIS could have inside a classroom," said Brianne Wegter, a ninth-grade geography teacher at Rice High School in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota. "I knew immediately that this tool would change the way I teach and impact the way students learn about geography and the world around them."
When a new geography-focused high school advanced placement (AP) class became nationally available in 2001, MDE supported the widespread adoption of the AP Human Geography course with a special focus on ninth-grade students. The course helps teens start thinking geospatially and building GIS skills early in their high school years, learning the many ways geography influences their state and the wider world.
Like some other states, Minnesota has an appointed chief geospatial information officer (GIO). Minnesota's chief GIO, Dan Ross, doesn't just coordinate the application of GIS technology across state departments. He also provides essential state-level advocacy for community efforts to increase GIS learning for educators and students.
"He's been a champion of getting kids at school age involved with GIS and understanding the importance of students arriving at college with geospatial literacy," commented Stark.
Results That Speak for Themselves
With encouragement and support from a vast network of educators and mentors, Minnesota students have contributed 40 percent of the total submissions to Esri's annual ArcGIS Online mapping competition, and Minnesota students have won half the competition's national prizes.
The enthusiasm surrounding GIS education in Minnesota has caught on. Hamline University's Center for Global Environmental Education has created additional GIS resources for classrooms, and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources produced a Minnesota-specific version of the renowned national Firewise program. Meanwhile, Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom, an organization dedicated to expanding agricultural K–12 education, has its own GIS-based curriculum. It's evident across the state that when good ideas and motivated individuals are encouraged, they can accomplish a great deal.
These results aren't the work of one or two motivated pioneers. Any state can replicate this success in creating a thriving statewide geospatial learning community. Champions of GIS education in Minnesota didn't necessarily have access to the latest geographic mapping tools. This isn't the story of cutting-edge technology transforming a community; rather, it's the story of a community using commonly available tools and brainstorming techniques to teach students how to use GIS to better understand the world around them.
"We've had champions in the right places at the right times," said Stark. "We had someone from the Department of Education on the MN GIS/LIS Consortium board working with educators from MAGE, who were working directly with other teachers. They all believe this is something important to do."
What began in the 1980s with one professor's workshops was built on by inspired teams of educators, professionals, and state-level supporters. Not one but multiple organizations are sharing the work of getting students engaged with GIS—MAGE, MN GIS/LIS Consortium, UMN, and a few Minnesota state agencies as well. "The most meaningful result of all this is the enthusiastic middle school and high school teachers who are sharing their lesson plans and mentoring other teachers to teach with GIS," commented Stark.
There are so many maps and graphics in our media and in our daily lives that require some spatial literacy... learning how to read maps on a digital platform and interpreting interactive maps—it's good if we can start early; it's important for everyone."