A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer-based tool for mapping and analyzing things that exist and events that happen on earth. GIS technology integrates common database operations such as query and statistical analysis with the unique visualization and geographic analysis benefits offered by maps. These abilities distinguish GIS from other information systems and make it valuable to a wide range of public and private enterprises for explaining events, predicting outcomes, and planning strategies.
The major challenges we face in the world today--overpopulation, pollution, deforestation, natural disasters--have a critical geographic dimension.
Whether siting a new business, finding the best soil for growing bananas, or figuring out the best route for an emergency vehicle, local problems also have a geographical component GIS will give you the power to create maps, integrate information, visualize scenarios, solve complicated problems, present powerful ideas, and develop effective solutions like never before. GIS is a tool used by individuals and organizations, schools, governments, and businesses seeking innovative ways to solve their problems.
Mapmaking and geographic analysis are not new, but a GIS performs these tasks better and faster than do the old manual methods. And, before GIS technology, only a few people had the skills necessary to use geographic information to help with decision making and problem solving.
Today, GIS is a multibillion-dollar industry employing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. GIS is taught in schools, colleges, and universities throughout the world. Professionals in every field are increasingly aware of the advantages of thinking and working geographically.
Most of us have never heard of GIS. I hadn't heard the term until the summer of 1998 when I had the good fortune to attend a paid in-service class (MAPPS Project) at Los Angeles Trade Technical College on advanced technologies. Teachers from elementary to college level were exposed to programs such as Micro Station (similar to Auto Cad), the full Microsoft Office suite, several multimedia programs and ArcView GIS. It took only a few classes to realize the great potential GIS held for education.
I informed the instructor, Michael Rendler, that I was extremely interested in furthering my studies of ArcView and he was kind enough to spend many hours tutoring me. In the following year he helped me gain a working knowledge of the program and together we have spend many hours experimenting with educational application for ArcView.
My first MAPPS in-service class project was an American Civil War Battle interactive map. The resulting Civil War map and it's interactivity convinced me my students needed to learn this technology.
My high school purchased the Arc View for Schools and Libraries bundle ($500 for a site license, the program and several data CD's). I signed up for the online ESRI course Introduction to ArcView GIS, in their Virtual Campus, and spent the rest of the summer attaining a minimum proficiency with the program.
In September 1998 I felt confident enough to take the first steps in classroom instruction. I would introduce GIS in all my social studies classes, U.S. History, World History, and Geography. Considering the current educational environment that stresses Standards and test results, GIS instruction would be geared to supporting the curriculum and California State Social Studies Framework.
I teach at Jordan High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. My school is located in the Watts community of Los Angeles. The population of the school is 79% Hispanic and 21% African-American. Standardized test relegate Jordan to the bottom 10% and the school is located in one of the poorest communities in the United States. Very few of the students have home computers and the school is a classic representative of the "Digital Divide".
I consider myself very fortunate to have in my Social Studies classroom twenty-two networked computers for student use, one server and one teacher workstation. Unfortunately the classroom is not hooked- up to the Internet and my students have not been able to use the many rich GIS orientated sites on the WWW. This will change in 2001 as the whole school is now being wired under the state Digital High School program.
I began teaching GIS to all of my classes but shifted the emphasis to one 9th grade Geography class. Later in the year I taught ArcView to other teachers classes in the two computer lab periods I had at the time.
My biggest fear had been whether I could successfully instruct the students if they could actually learn the program to perform GIS projects on their own. This fear was quickly allayed as many of the students became proficient with the software. Many of the students were able to create projects based on data they researched themselves. I used several CD Rom based history programs and multimedia encyclopedias as research resources. I downloaded several WWW sites including the CIA site at http://www.odci.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html and made them available on each student computer or the server.
We accomplished two major projects in the initial year. The first was validating the proposition that " High income is a result of increased education." We used data obtained from http://csars.calstatela.edu/. They have both online and CD based data with extensive coverage of Los Angeles County. Each student turned in a validation of the proposition, which included layouts of all relevant data and a written essay.
I now had enough evidence to propose an exclusive GIS course for the 1999-2000 school year. Due to mandates on our school to increase the number of technology class offerings, it was approved and I began teaching the course in September of 1999.
Over 40 students were programmed into the class. Several of students had no idea what GIS was and others had poor basic computer skills. The majority of students were eager to learn and I was fortunate in having several of last years GIS students. The school purchased a class set of textbooks from ESRI press. The class began by using the exercises in the ESRI textbook Getting to Know ArcView. We also used the tutorial chapters that come with the ArcView manual, and several other learning exercises downloaded from the Internet. The majority of the students mastered the basics of ArcView and were able to work on more sophisticated assignments.
I had been thinking about an ArcView project mapping the 1790 census. I came upon the idea after purchasing the "Historical United States County Boundary Files" (HUSCO) from http://www.cadgis.lsu.edu/geoscipub/ . Unfortunately, for our project, the shape files are on a county level and the task of entering data for every county in 1790 could not be accomplished due to time constraints. The census data we used came from the "United States Historical Census Data Browser" http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/census/ . Since we could not find a way of converting the WWW Census data automatically to a database, our only option was to enter the data manually. To the best of my knowledge this project had not been done before and it would be a chance for my students to create new GIS data.
I decided to use Microsoft Access as the core database for the project. Accesss form entry method would simplify the process of entering data from the census tables. I had used Access in previous years' classes and knew students could quickly master its fairly simple command structure. Each student received a Xeroxed set of the Census Bureaus 1790 data. This data consisted of twenty-seven fields for the sixteen states in the United States in 1790. After receiving instructions on using Access, the students began their project by creating a new table and form. Entering the data took from five to seven class periods depending on the students proclivity to save or not save their work. Several students had to start from scratch two or three times due to save errors. We all learned a lot about saving data in Access.
With the Access table completed, we had to bring it into ArcView for which we used two methods. The first was exporting the table in a DBF format. The second, and the preferred, was using the ODBC and SQL protocols. Once we knew the tables could be successfully brought into ArcView, we began preparing a host project.
As mentioned previously, we could not use the HUSCO shape files so the students had to construct their own map of 1790 America. The one insurmountable problem was the state of West Virginia, which did not exist in 1790. We could never solve the problem of removing the state boundary line between West Virginia and Virginia (subsequently we learned how), so we reluctantly decided to leave out the West Virginia portion of Virginia.
We used the state map from the "QSTART" shape files that come with ArcView. The students quickly constructed the 1790 map and proceeded to add in and join the converted Access 1790 census table. There were numerous problems adding and joining the table until we worked out all the bugs.
The culminating task of the project was the creation and printing of 10 to 20 layouts illustrating population characteristics of 1790 America. Almost all the students who participated in the project were successful and gained a solid base of GIS skills that can be carried onto other projects. We completed numerous other projects that year.
In the 2000-01 school year, I had two full GIS classes and began incorporating appropriate GIS skills into my United States History classes.
I have reached several conclusions regarding teaching GIS in a high school setting. They include the following:
- GIS is a valuable and motivating educational tool whose use in the classroom is in its infancy.
- Very few K-12 schools are equipped with the computers or, more importantly, the teachers to implement its classroom use.
- The learning curve to become a competent GIS instructor is steep and prior computer skills a necessity.
- The existence of GIS is unknown among the vast majority of teachers and a way must be found to "spread the word."
- Teachers who use GIS are scattered and some method should be found to bring them together. Teachers are poorly paid and cannot be expected to fund their own attendance at conventions.
- ESRI and other GIS companies are beginning to recognize that they must get more involved if they want more K-12 students exposed to GIS.
- Some funding mechanism must be found to allow creative teachers the time to write GIS lessons. Classroom teachers work all day with no opportunity for research during their school day.
- Corporate, University and Governmental GIS users should seek out and support teachers using GIS in their classrooms.
- GIS has the potential to become a major player in the tools available to educators to motivate and develop technology skills for their students.
- School Boards and school administrators need to be informed about the uses of GIS in the classroom.
- As a teacher for 30 years, I have never seen students so involved with learning. I have never worked as hard as I have with my GIS class and have never enjoyed teaching as much.