Techniques for Using GIS in the Classroom

One of the challenges that teachers face in adapting geographic information system (GIS) technology to their classroom is in identifying techniques that will work in their classrooms. No two classrooms, teachers, or groups of students are alike. What works in one setting may not work in another. However, underlying strategies may be adapted to alternative situations.

GIS AS HARDCOPY CARTOGRAPHY STATION Some teachers with limited access to hardware within the classroom have used GIS on their own, outside of class, to produce a number of paper maps. By varying the content, even by as little as re-classifying or re-coloring one layer in the map, teachers can produce a number of high quality outputs in short order. In this scenario of teachers preparing hardcopy work, there are several tips to consider. Spend time to create and store a consistent LAYOUT template. Having consistent map elements in a pre-constructed fashion will reduce the time needed for multiple outputs. Also, this will reinforce the concept of elements that should be included on any map. Make sure to use colors and patterns that appear as distinguishable in print as they do on screen. Some printers may not provide the desired clarity for some shades or patterns. Also, make sure that points and lines show up at the desired scale when printed. For example, a 1-pt line on screen is often much more visible than a 1-pt line on paper. Consider using black and white pattern or greyscale printouts. Higher quality output is more affordable in black and white. These maps can usually be photocopied successfully, and can often contain fully as much data as a colored map with two or even three layers. And when preparing for black and white or greyscale printouts, construct the map in those colors, rather than relying on the computer to translate the shades from a color map, which often yields unexpected results. Consider creating a mosaic print, constructing a large map from a series of standard letter- or legal-sized printouts. This is actually quite easy to do, with some careful attention to landmarks. If possible, use student-generated data in the maps. This will make the activities all the more powerful for those who created the data.

Techniques for Using GIS in the Classroom, page 1
Copyright © 1997, Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc.

As always, design activities which engage students in critical thinking using a series of maps, tables, and charts. Even if they are not involved in producing the maps, graphics, or data, students should still be able to identify noteworthy patterns. And, as with any materials enduring significant handling, display maps under protective covers -lamination or even just transparent open-edge sheet covers. Protecting such creations will increase their long-term value and make it easier for students to do more thorough examination. Finally, having spent time creating GIS projects which meet special needs, be sure to save these projects. Storage space for a project is small.

CREATING CARTOGRAPHIC CLIPART While some teachers have focused on using hardcopy output to put GIS into students' hands, others have constructed electonic versions of outputs. The images become, effectively, "clip art" for use in all manner of projects. The procedure is very straightforward. Create a map display with the desired data, then either export the map to a file or use third party screen capture software to grab the desired image. Screen capture software is especially useful for creating images which carry legend information, focusing on just one portion of the screen, or ensuring a WYSIWYG output. In creating such clip art, it is important to bear in mind the potential uses. Clean and simple displays are adaptable to multiple uses. Make sure that there is some indication about the nature of the data, so that users and viewers can know something about the value and quality of the data without having to do elaborate investigation. Clip art can be used powerfully by distributing the images to multiple computers. The receiving stations need not be particularly powerful -- just capable of viewing images of the defined format. With the rise of the World Wide Web, GIF images are now particularly common. With powerful images requiring perhaps only 25-50 kb each, a single floppy may hold a few dozen images, and still have enough space so that "section heading" images can be included as well. These images can be stored using sequential naming schemes, for use in "slideshow" or screensaver software, or to construct animated GIF images, to create a sort of movie. Production of multimedia portfolios containing GIS-based images can be powerfully enhanced through the use of clip art. Packages such as HyperStudio (by Roger Wagner), Powerpoint (by Microsoft), and a host of others can be used by both teachers and students to create integrated learning activities that can run on modestly-powered stations, and which can often cross from one platform to another without problem. Again, having spent time creating GIS projects which meet special needs, be sure to save these projects. Storage space for a project is cheap.

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Copyright © 1997, Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc.

THE GIS EXPLORATORIUM In a number of schools, teachers and librarians have found success by creating a single hands-on station with some pre-constructed views. Students can sit at the station and choose from a menu of options, with engaging a display being as simple as double clicking one of many carefully named icons representing a set of different creations. These "Greatest Hits" stations can be customized quckly, with different icons or widows for different classes or topics. In such public settings, which may involve limited interaction between user and guide, it may be critical to ensure that data sources and the constructions themselves are stored in read-only fashion, and backed up on external media, to prevent and recover from accidental (or other) modification. Using such a strategy, individual students or groups might be charged with creation of a "project of the week." Projects could involve current events or just current study topics.

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Copyright © 1997, Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc.

THE LEARNING CHALLENGE Some teachers have all the access they need to hardware, but not the time necessary for stretching GIS to its great potential. In such cases, some teachers have found success by introducing students to what they do know, then turning the interested students loose, sometimes with a directive merely to explore and report what patterns or possibilities have been discovered. In such cases, some teachers have achieved quite impressive results. Since students may have more disposable time than adults (and sometimes more familiarity with standard software protocols), many interested students have beome their teachers' "in-house technicians," producing GIS constructions that meet specific needs. Key here is that students may understand what is possible in a technical sense, but may lack the vision of what is important in a curricular sense. Teachers who identify the key elements and then turn the students loose to be creative but task-oriented problem solvers have reported tremendous "return."

THE TEACHING CHALLENGE In explorations where students have hands-on experience (or even just "eyes-on", as in the case of group explorations on a large display device), teachers should be prepared for the examinations to turn in unexpected directions. Spatial analysis is a process involving diverse data, insights, and orientations; computers facilitate divergence, so engaging GIS compounds the opportunities for venturing into uncharted areas. Students may meander quite happily in these explorations, but may also be very willing to accept "enhancement suggestions" -- questions or comments that may help steer the student into more profitable explorations. The alert teacher who takes advantage of this feature can hook students into activities of tremendous educational value. With all the variation possible surrounding the use of GIS, this much is constant: Given chances to explore questions of interest with GIS, students pick up the technological skills quickly. It is then the challenge for the teacher to organize the framework of exploration. And, as has been proven countless times in our history, powerful exploration can occur in a multitude of ways.

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