Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Students Map Real-World Issues with (Free) Geospatial Tools

July 28, 2014

Imagine being an emergency responder in a small town that hasn't mapped its fire hydrants, labeled rural roads with street signs, or identified evacuation points in the event of natural disaster. Now imagine being part of a high school team that addresses those issues by thinking critically and using sophisticated geospatial tools to communicate findings.

Until recently, only a small number of schools have had access to the high-powered geographical information system (GIS) software that enables detailed, layered mapping and analysis of data. Thanks to a recent $1 billion pledge from software developer Esri, free access to cloud-based mapping software is coming to 100,000 K-12 schools across the country. The donation of ArcGIS Online, the same software that governments and businesses use, has been pledged through ConnectED, a White House initiative to improve education in the STEM fields.

This sets the stage for students to take learning and problem solving in new directions by developing their geospatial literacy. Being able to analyze data and present information visually are important skills, whether you are investigating global issues or trying to solve problems in your backyard. Adding GIS to the project-based learning toolkit opens all kinds of opportunities for rich inquiry.

Joseph Kerski, education manager for Esri, points to three global trends that make GIS a powerful tool for learning:

  • Increasingly complex challenges that are global in nature
  • Expanded, online access to geographic tools and data
  • Proliferation of geo-enabled devices (such as smart phones, satellites, and sensors)

Pioneers Lead the Way

Consider just a few examples from schools that have been pioneers in using GIS for learning.

In rural Arkansas, students from Eureka Springs High School created 911 responder maps for their historic community, mapped 307 fire hydrants, and identified emergency evacuation landing zones. The school is part of the EAST Initiative, a PBL program with a long tradition of combining technology tools with community problem solving. Learn more about EAST in this Edutopia video series.

At the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico, students have used GIS to map backroads and tribal land boundaries. They have leveraged their geospatial literacy to assist with wetlands restoration, ground water monitoring, and a variety of environmental and land use issues. The detailed, layered maps and documentary videos that students produce are useful for communicating their findings to tribal leaders. Read more about this school's unique Community Based Education Program, which connects students with real-world issues unfolding on Pueblos across New Mexico.

In Virginia, high school students have the option to take part in a "Geospatial Semester" during their senior year. This program, co-founded by Robert Kolvoord, a James Madison University technology professor, is designed to engage students in extended inquiry projects that combine geography, technology, and spatial analysis. Geospatial Semester students work from their home high schools, connect with university experts, and have a chance to earn early college credit. What have Geospatial Semester students investigated? Everything from bird strikes at airports to local crime patterns to bicycle accident patterns or follow the program on Twitter @geosemester.

To learn more about strategies to deepen student inquiry and build geospatial literacy with the help of GIS tools, visit the Esri GIS for schools site.

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  • Community Partnerships
  • STEM
  • Technology Integration

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