SKILL BUILDER: Geographic information systems

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Students will be able to 1) describe general applications of GIS; 2) identify the basic features of GIS; and 3) explain a current area of GIS research.

Big Idea

Geographic information systems have transformed the relationship between humans and maps. How might we engage with an interactive gis tutorial to develop our understanding of the nuances of gis?

FRAME: GIS deep dive

What is the technology that powers online maps? In "Maps" students developed a conceptual understanding of a geographic information system (GIS) and incorporated ideas from GIS in their draft community maps.  This SKILL BUILDER continues this work.  Students will learn more about applications of GIS to problems humans face, explore the "guts" of a GIS system through an interactive tutorial, and suggest applications of GIS for the Sunset Park community.  

My focus on GIS is a work in progress. I am personally fascinated by the analytic scope of GIS tools. Professionally, I am interested in how GIS might align with a student-centered, democratic, project-based classroom. GIS allows students to ask questions, analyze data, model, think mathematically, investigate ideas, use evidence to support claims, and so on. GIS essentially enables students to develop all of the science and engineering practices outlined in the Next Generation Science Standards-and all before college. As this curriculum embraces STEM as an opportunity to wrangle testable knowledge and prototype solutions that can be applied to the improvement of the community environment, GIS seems like a perfect fit. There is even some research to support the idea that GIS requires classrooms to more closely embrace the practices of actual engineers and scientists. 

As noted, this lesson and the next are essentially teasers. Students will acquire conceptual knowledge and some skills, but they will not acquire deep proficiency with GIS. I simply do not have the expertise or access to technology that I would need to make this a robust learning experience for my students.  Nonetheless, for teachers interested in pursuing this topic further, below are a number of resources that may prove helpful.


FLIPPED: GIS applications

What is the purpose of this FLIPPED activity?

Students learn about compelling applications of geospatial technology.  By the end of this section, students should be able to explain how geospatial technology is an important data tool that can help humans solve problems quickly.

What will students do?

Student will watch an episode of the Geospatial Revolution.  This episode examines global climate change, famine, disease and community. Students will develop a paragraph response to one or more of the following questions:

  • How does GIS help us understand what is happening to the planet? 
  • How might we apply principles of GIS to the maps we create? 
  • How can we use GIS maps to quickly solve difficult problems?
  • How is a GIS map different than a paper map?

Students will share responses during the ENGAGE section.

Here is the clip: 

ENGAGE: GIS in Sunset Park

10 minutes

What is the purpose of this section

Students build on work for the FLIPPED assignment and develop ideas for how GIS might be used in the local community to solve problems, environmental or otherwise. What are some problems that you could solve with GIS? By the end of this activity, students should be able to identify one problem in the community that could be tackled with GIS as well as the data that would need to be collected.

What will students do?

Students use ideas from the Geospatial Revolution as models for their work. How might gis serve as a tool to conduct research and solve problems in the Sunset Park community? 

First students develop short written descriptions that answer these questions:

  1. What community problem do you think that GIS could help to solve?
  2. Why do you think GIS can help?
  3. What data would you need to collect? Identify at least three types of data

Second, students share out ideas in groups and each group choose the most promising idea.

Finally, student groups share out one idea with the class.

What will teachers do?

Students generally are able to propose a problem that GIS can help to solve. However, they may struggle with explaining why GIS can help. Specifically, students will struggle with identifying data that can be measured.  For example, a student may identify intersections that are dangerous because of car speeds, but they may struggle identifying the data that would need to be collected to develop a map of dangerous intersections.  Car speeds, for example, are not enough. We would need to measure car speeds, numbers of cars, and concentration of pedestrians.  If the majority of students are struggling with this task, teachers should stop the group and present a sample problem to the class.

EXPLORE: How does GIS work?

30 minutes

What is the purpose of this section?

Students learn about the nuts and bolts of GIS through a self-paced learning module. How do data systems organize geographic information? By the end of this section, students should be able to define key GIS terms, navigate a map using GIS tools, and  

What will students do?

Students will explore this GIS concepts interactive tutorial developed by San Jose State University in collaborative teams. (The PROTOTYPE ACTIVITY GUIDE contains a framework for this exploration.) Each student will complete work at an individual computer, but is able to consult with a group member.  Topics include the following:

  • Navigation
  • Map scale
  • Location
  • Layers

Each topic will require a student to define terms, apply understanding of terms, and demonstrate proficiency through a short quiz.

Once students have made their way through all parts of the module, they write short "key findings" reports. In these reports, students describe what they think are the most important concept from this module. Students that finish early share the key findings report with each other.

This activity ends with a teacher-facilitated norming of the four topics investigated. What is the definition of each? What is an example of this definition for GIS? 

What will teachers do?

Because of the ubiquity of smartphones with mapping capabilities, most students will be familiar with the GIS features. As such, they may want to skip parts of the modules because they "already know it." One teacher move to make in this case is to define this activity as a study in design. "Although you may already be familiar with GIS from your smartphones, I want you to think about the purpose of each of the features in the module. We will be using these same features in the maps that we will create in the next lesson. Consider this an opportunity to understand design choice you can make in creating maps."


10 minutes

What will students do?

Student groups scan a blog about GIS and identify one environmental topic of current interest to share with the class; the class then selects a "most interesting" topic. By the end of this section, students should be able to describe at least one environmental topic of interest to the GIS community.

What will students do?

Students groups will scan this blog that explores "applications of geospatial technology for scientific research and understanding" for one current GIS application for environmental science. Groups create "rapid publications" for this topic that answer these three questions:

  1. What is the topic?
  2. Why did you choose the topic?
  3. How is GIS applied?
  4. How do you think we could modify this topic so for the Sunset Park community?

What will teachers do?

Teachers frame this topic as practice for the next SKILL BUILDER. Right now you are going to explore some topics that environmental scientists explore using GIS. Which topics do you think we could also explore in Sunset Park? Which techniques do you think would be the most useful? The primary difficulty that groups will have with this task is the complexity of language used.  Teachers should explicitly tell students to ignore any blog posts that they do not immediately understand. The purpose of this activity is for students to express their personal interests, not to make meaning of complex ideas that they may never have encountered.

EXIT: Layer love

5 minutes

Which GIS layer do I think is the most important? Which layer would I be most interested in building for the Sunset Park community? As an EXIT, each student considers the learning activities for the day and the original ENGAGE question to respond to these two questions. All students share responses. There is no discussion. This sharing allows students to demonstrate understanding of GIS concepts and also allows the teacher to anticipate needs for the next lesson. What do students seem to find engaging about GIS? What resources should be made available for student-created digital neighborhood maps?