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Spatial Thinking, Education, and the Workforce
By Ann B. Johnson, Esri Higher Education Solutions Manager

The importance of incorporating geospatial skills into the curriculum

A U.S. National Research Council report published in 2005 stressed the importance of spatial thinking in science and the workplace. The report, Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K12 Curriculum, focuses on K12 education and recommends integrating spatial thinking into the existing K12 curriculum.

Deidre Sullivan
Deidre Sullivan of the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center is shown leading a workshop. MATE improves marine technical education to meet workplace needs.

The report also mentions GIS technology's possible use in helping students develop spatial thinking skills. The use of GIS for such an outcome is not limited to K12 education. GIS can also play an important role in undergraduate education. GIS is a teaching tool that faculty can use to help students visualize complex spatial relationships in many disciplines. GIS is a learning tool that helps students learn by a different method about subjects such as history and geology. Finally, GIS is a critical thinking tool that helps students learn methodologies to carry out and test hypotheses of research projects based on real-world problems that incorporate real-world data.

GIS in Education

Why the emergence of GIS in education? GIS has gone from an obscure, difficult-to-use technology available only on high-end workstations in graduate-level programs to a technology that can be used by students in many disciplines at colleges and universities. Advances in computer hardware, easier data sharing since the introduction of the Internet, and the development of easier-to-use software have all contributed to this phenomenon. For the same reasons, GIS use has increased in the workforce and is now being used in such divergent fields as forestry, agriculture, health care and epidemiology, local government, and homeland security.

GIS Education and the Workforce

The U.S. Department of Labor funded a study by Geospatial Information and Technology Association (GITA), Association of American Geographers (AAG), and the Wharton School to define the industry and identify its workforce needs. The study produced a report, Phase I—Report Defining and Communicating Geospatial Industry Workforce Demand. The grant is part of the U.S. Department of Labor efforts in support of President George W. Bush's High Growth Job Training Initiative, which identified geospatial technology as one of the top areas for job growth.

With the rapid growth of the industry, a gap is developing between the number of students able to use these technologies and industry's need for skilled workers. Students who both understand the concepts needed for effective use of geospatial technologies and have a background in an application area have good employment prospects.

Developing GIS Curricula

Students of the Environmental and Spatial Technologies (EAST) class at a Santa Barbara, California, high school mapped the water system of one of California's missions.

Educators need to develop GIS-related curricula. The University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) recently completed the Model Curricula Body of Knowledge. This document will be published by AAG in summer 2006. This effort by the UCGIS Education Committee is the first edition of a continuing work to define the Body of Knowledge (BoK) for the domain of geographic information science and technology (GI S&T). The domain is partitioned into 10 Knowledge Areas (KAs) that are further segmented into units. Each unit has a title and a short definition and is further partitioned into topics. Each topic includes educational objectives specific to that topic with different levels of mastery. More than 350 educational objectives in 79 units are included in 10 KAs. [For additional information on BoK, see the accompanying article, "Developing a GIS Curriculum—UCGIS Model Curricula Body of Knowledge 2006."]

While the document was created to aid in building a GI S&T curriculum, it has also been used by other organizations such as the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI). GISCI has certified more than 1,000 GIS professionals and is using the document to help determine if courses taken by the applicant can be counted toward certification. Recently, the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) decided to develop an accreditation program for courses or degrees focused on geospatial intelligence analyst programs. BoK is being used to identify knowledge areas needed in programs that qualify to become accredited under the USGIF Academy.

GIS Across the Campus

Although GIS is spreading across college and university campuses, much work needs to be done. Many courses, certificates, and degrees are offered that incorporate the use of GIS. The Esri Searchable Database of GIS Programs, available from the Esri Higher Education Web site, lists more than 525 programs at colleges and universities. These programs are offered in many different departments. Some programs are housed in GIS departments or centers.

This year more than 500 educators will meet at the Esri Education User Conference August 58, 2006, in San Diego, California, to discuss the ways GIS has been incorporated into programs. Past conference papers and papers relative to education and curriculum development can be found at the Esri Virtual Campus Library.

Programs need additional teaching materials, texts, and other resources to help introduce the methods and technology into more disciplines. Many efforts are under way to create materials specific to different disciplines. Some areas that have had resources created are hydrology, geography, first responders, agriculture, geology and earth science. More materials need to be created to help schools of business, health care, epidemiology, engineering, and history, to name a few.

Support for Developing GIS Programs

Many National Science Foundation (NSF) grants have focused on the use or incorporation of GIS into programs. One current grant is Spatial Perspectives on Analysis for Curriculum Enhancement (SPACE). This grant helps instructors of undergraduate courses in the social sciences develop materials that enhance the use of spatial concepts. New texts and laboratory exercises have been developed but more discipline-specific materials and training opportunities are needed. The NSF GIS-TECH grant in Texas at Del Mar College and Texas A&M in Corpus Christi and the Scalable Skills Certification Program in GIS in California at San Diego Mesa College and San Diego State University (SDSU) have been providing links and training for K12 and college faculty. Many other events are also being held to help educators learn GIS and use it in their courses.

These efforts will help students progress from high school to graduate school as programs are introduced at all levels. Grants are also working on agreements for transferring credits between institutions (i.e., articulation agreements), and SDSU has developed an undergraduate course (Introduction to GIS 104) that has been qualified as a general education requirement under quantitative reasoning. More examples of articulation between different levels of institutions and more examples of GIS use to meet general education requirements need to be identified and shared.

Future of GIS Programs

Support from industry, government, and professional organizations is helping colleges and universities incorporate geospatial technologies. Although more work needs to be done, these initiatives are helping colleges and universities offer programs that will help students enter the expanding geospatial industries or use the spatial thinking skills they develop for better decisions no matter their final profession.

For more information, visit the Web pages listed in the table below.

About the Author

Ann Johnson is the Esri Higher Education Solutions manager. She created a GIS certificate program at San Bernardino Valley College and, under a grant from the California Community

Ann Johnson
Ann Johnson enjoying a day viewing the Morrison Formation and Dinosaur Ridge in Colorado (105o12'23"W, 39o39'55.9"N)
College Chancellor's office, helped develop the content for and supported training in GIS to more than 125 instructors in California. In 1997, she assumed the role of coprincipal investigator of GIS Access, a project funded by an NSF grant, that successfully helped provide GIS education and Active Learning workshops to more than 100 K12 educators. As part of grants and other presentations, Johnson has helped other colleges and universities set up GIS certificate and degree programs. She is currently a coprincipal investigator for GIS-TECH, another NSF-funded project that is developing curricula for GIS applications for the workforce. She has a master's degree in geology from the University of California, Riverside, and a bachelor's degree in geology from California State University, Fullerton.

Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K12
President Bush's High Growth Job Training
Curricula Body of
GIS Certification
Geospatial Intelligence Analyst
Esri Searchable Database of GIS
Esri Training and Education Library

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