Adam J. Schwartz is My Wonderful World’s public engagement coordinator for New York City. He teaches Geographic Information Systems and Global History at the Academy of Urban Planning in Brooklyn, New York, and is an historical tour guide for the Center for the Urban Environment.
We live in an age of maps. According to author and cartographer Dennis Wood, over 99.9% of all maps ever created were created during the last 100 years. They surround us in our daily activities: in newspapers, on weather reports, and throughout our day. With tools like Google Maps and the National Geographic Map Machine they are available at the merest click. We are all map consumers, including our students.
Having a map at your fingertips is an everyday luxury, but the fact is that someone has got to make all those maps. That someone could be your students, or even you! Making your own maps is a great option for teachers who want to create their own materials. And for students it can be a hook for getting involved in geography and geographic careers. Many of our students are already interested in technology. So by showing them how they can apply that to making a map, you open up a whole new potential career, in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
So what’s GIS? GIS technology is the nuts and bolts behind almost every map we use, and is vital for many of the services we use everyday, both public (power and water systems) and private .GIS is, at its simplest level, software that combines location and information in a simple visual format. And during the last few years, it’s become easier to access than ever before.
More importantly, Geospatial Technology, of which GIS is a subset, is one of the fastest growing sectors of the technology industry. If a student chooses GIS, the chances are great that there will be a job waiting for them after college, or even before.
A tool for teachers and students
Vocational education is not what brings most teachers to GIS. And it doesn’t take any special training for you to get started using it in your classroom. I’m certainly no mastermind at GIS, I’m just a teacher who loves maps, and making them! That’s what led me to take a short teacher training course with Carol Gersmehl of New York's Regents Center for Geographic Learning. Beyond that, most of what I’ve learned is from the same tutorials my students use. At the Academy of Urban Planning, I’m lucky to co-teach with an experienced geographer, Josh Lapidus, but most of what I have learned is on the job.
The most important lesson I’ve taken out of making maps is that while it may be the “long way round”—as compared to using published maps--you can get much more out of the journey.
As a teacher, GIS mapping can be the simplest way to get just the right map. Yes, you can Google for hours for just the right map for that special activity. Or, with a little practice, you can make it yourself. And whether you give your lessons with an overhead, a projector, or a SMARTboard, the multiple layers of a GIS map enable you to better explain any spatial phenomenon.
For our students, we all want to make our activities more engaging. And most educators would agree that students remember more of what they do than what they read, see, or hear. And they are more interested, too.
Consequently, a student making his or her own map can build new levels of understanding as they see how borders change, and how topography, climate, and demographics interact to explain historic or scientific processes. It’s a constructivist approach to geography, with the students doing the constructing.
And best of all, when they are finished with a GIS map, a student has the pride of printing it! These polished artifacts not only celebrate what’s been learned, they look great on a wall, or even better, in a portfolio. This year at my school, the Academy of Urban Planning, many of our students are submitting portfolios for colleges focusing on arts, architecture, and design. And in each of those portfolios is a map they made with me.
We don’t expect many of our students to come out of our program as cartographers, but they all come out with a greater mastery of real world computer skills, better literacy skills (from all those tutorials!), and a more insightful understanding of the world around them. I am lucky enough to teach a yearlong dedicated GIS class, but everything we do is taught in connection with Science (Urban Ecology), AP Human Geography, and US History. Along the way, our students also develop skills in technology and geography.
Here’s how it works for us: After starting with Google Maps and Google Earth, my students worked up to AEJEE, a very basic GIS program (more on that below). They are currently following AEJEE tutorials, in preparation for building their own mapping projects. The published tutorials have dealt with settlement patterns in US history and the US Census. We have also written our own tutorials on the 2008 election.
As for projects, we start those in the spring. In past years, we have focused on environmental justice and local history. This spring, we will be combining both themes by making maps for a local environmental group that is working to clean up NYC’s dirtiest body of water, Newtown Creek.
Of course, not everyone can dedicate the time we do to mapping with GIS technology. But there's a new place for it in your classroom. It's just a matter of getting started!
Getting Started with My World and AEJEE
It's easy to get started using GIS software. At the simplest level, all you need is some data and a location, and GIS software! For that there a two major options, which are suited for different needs.
ESRI, the leader in GIS applications to both the public and private sector, is the best place to start in my opinion. They have the widest range of software to suit different needs, and recently, they have taken some very exciting steps towards making GIS more accessible to educators.
First, they have a free software suite aimed at teachers-- Arc Explorer Java Edition for Education (AEJEE, pronounced edgy). It downloads with data ready to map. While the data that comes with AEJEE is limited, you can get lots more from the Geography Network and other online sources.
Second, ESRI has recently published a new series, Our World GIS Education, written for students from an elementary to high school level. Each book includes step-by-step tutorials written on a kid’s level, and related datasets that you can use to build a wider range of maps. As a teacher who uses these tutorials in my classroom, I appreciate their connection to multiple curriculum areas in Social Studies and Sciences.
For schools and teachers that are looking for a GIS package geared for simpler student use, Pasco's My World GIS is another good place to start. Designed specifically for students from middle school through college levels, My World GIS comes loaded with 50 datasets (climate, population, geology, and more) that are ready to map. You can get more online, or even add your own data from a GPS, but most of what a science or geography teacher could ever need is already included in the package.
Both of these programs make designing and printing your maps very simple, so either one would be a good start for an educator who wanted to find out more about using GIS in the classroom. My World GIS requires more of a financial investment, but is easier to master for students and teachers. AEJEE is more basic, but there is lots of room to grow. And of course, it is a great introduction to ESRI software, the industry standard.
The GIS applications used in the GIS industry, ranging from municipal and state governments, to companies like FEDEX and McDonald's, are complicated creations beyond all but the most adept GIS technicians. But everybody starts somewhere, even a GIS technician. And there is no better time for you and your students than today, GIS day!
Yes, we are surrounded by maps. But with the aid of technology and a bit of effort, the next map you use could very well be your own!
This Friday of Geography Awareness Week, Adam’s students will participate in the groundbreaking Manahatta project. Learn more about this “interactive exploration of the primordial terrain of Manhattan" website, and check back on the blog in coming weeks for Adam’s in-depth coverage of the event. by visiting the Wildlife Conservation Society
Images depict AUP student GIS mapping projects.