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Author: Steven D. Branting
Title: Hic Sunt Dracones - Filling in the GIS Map for the K-12 Classroom
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2008

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Source: Hic Sunt Dracones - Filling in the GIS Map for the K-12 Classroom
Steven D. Branting

vol. 11, no. 2, August 2008
Article Type: Article

Hic Sunt Dracones - Filling in the GIS Map for the K-12 Classroom

Steven D. Branting

Author biography

Steven Branting has served as a consultant for gifted and innovative programs and a curriculum designer in Lewiston ID for more than 30 years. Widely published for his work GIS, historical preservation and archaeology, his vita includes honors from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education, the Society for American Archaeology, the American Association for State and Local History and The History Channel™.


Few schools have successfully integrated geographic information systems (GIS) into the curricula of their K-12 social studies classrooms, even fewer into the wide variety of disciplines that can be effectively impacted by the study of spatial data. Organizing and maintaining a school’s GIS component depend on several crucial management criteria, not the least of which are the appropriate teacher competencies and standards alignment. Among other essential protocols are data storage and retrieval, network functioning, computer platform capabilities, appropriate learning activities and developing a coherent format that is replicable from one campus to another. This article compares and contrasts the ArcGIS™ (ESRI) and My World™ (GEODE Initiative, Northwestern University) applications as used in a classroom setting and provides a framework for using these GIS architectures.

Culminating outcomes:

As a result of reading and analyzing this article, the reader will:

  1. investigate a set of field-tested tasks to efficiently establish and maintain a school GIS program
  2. survey options available to schools regarding software, data and curricula
  3. investigate an implementation framework for a school setting

Key words: geographic literacy, spatial thinking, data library, shapefile, geoprocessing, georeferencing, construct, analyze, computer architecture, in-service


  1. ArcGIS® [ESRI, Redland CA] (versions 3.x and 9.x, Windows)
  2. My World® 4.1 [GEODE Initiative, Northwestern University, Evanston IL] (Windows, Macintosh and Linux versions)
  3. sample student assignments
  4. college course syllabi
  5. digital data sets/libraries


The article will provide:

  1. specific recommendations and administrative tasks
  2. descriptions of key features of the major GIS architectures
  3. sample lesson plans to demonstrate scope and sequence
  4. links to applicable resources
  5. samples of field-tested student assignments at a variety of grade levels
“Every map is the sum not only of the cartographer's skills, but of the many explorers who win the territory in the first place.” (Hall 1992)

Estonian statesman and author Lennart Meri once wrote: “If geography is prose, maps are iconography." (Meri 1976) Humans are visual creatures that thrive on imagery and innately organize their environment by color and shape, position and relationship. How often I have heard the question: “What do I have to do, draw you a picture?” Pictures provide a special dimension to speech, and maps are an invaluable tool for that task—a tool where the meaning is in its context, the combination of its polygons, lines and points. "Maps are graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world." (Harley 1987) The advent of geographic information systems (GIS) as an educational tool has posed both a challenge and an opportunity to regular classroom teachers, who have often com-mented to me: GIS is really interesting, but I could never learn all that computer stuff.

For most social studies and geography teachers, GIS is as uncharted a territory as those areas of the planet once noted on old maps with the Latin phrase “hic sunt dracones,” or “Here are dragons.” To the uninitiated, geographic technology oft has its gleaming teeth and fiery breath. Yes, Google Earth™ has popularized satellite imagery, but for all its pizzazz, it does not allow for the creation and analysis of maps to answer specific geographic questions. GIS empowers students to be innovative, solution-finding cartographers, rather than mere passive observers zooming to addresses and landmarks.

The first three national geographic standards combine to describe “the world in spatial terms.” (NCGE 1994) While GIS is not explicitly named in any of the 18 standards, no one can deny its being a sine qua non for 21st century geographic literacy. “The emerging critical new tool of Geographic Information Systems for the storage, analysis, and visualization of spatial data will have methodological impact on the geography, as well as, at least the spatial aspects of human society, allowing the completely different view points to analyze the world phenomena.” (Marble 1990) Consider, for a moment, the phraseology of the “essential elements one” standards, where the geographically informed person knows:

  1. how to use maps and other geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process, and report information
  2. how to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments
  3. how to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth's surface

Terms like tools, technologies, organize, analyze and spatial are transparent references to geographic information systems. Many agencies have recognized the implications. For example, the United State Geological Survey maintains a classroom-friendly Internet clearinghouse of materials, lessons and models for “GIS in Education.” ( Any teacher who wishes to use GIS as a classroom tool will experience no lack of available activities. In fact, there is more than anyone can reasonably use. For GIS novices the overriding problems stem from not knowing which architecture to use, the learning curve the teacher will need to navigate, managing a GIS lab, and training students methodically, with the goal of their having enough proficiency to make GIS a meaningful exercise that employs the higher orders of thinking: application, analysis, synthesis, interpretation and evaluation.

In order to give your school’s GIS plan a viable structure, let’s think of our plan as the “5 R’s”: reasons, resources, resolve, reinforcement and results.

All the Right Reasons for GIS

We have little difficulty identifying the reason for integrating GIS into our schools: the goal to increase geographic literacy. One need only review the findings of the latest geographic literacy study, conducted by Roeper Public Affairs, to quantify the level of National Geographic illiteracy in the United States. According to the survey, only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map, although American troops have been there since 2003. Twenty percent think Sudan is in Asia, even though the Darfur region of that nation has been the focus of repeated media attention. Half cannot locate New York on a map. (National Geographic Society 2006) Quite frankly, Americans—sadly, students in particular—are more lost on their own planet that the characters on the popular television program. The inclusion of geography as part of the social studies curriculum, and the subsequent teacher training in this paradigm, has been demonstrated as a contributor to the problem of geographic illiteracy. (Stanhope 1988) You do not have to make a case with your administration for GIS in your school. I am bemused when travel agents relate that American clients sometimes ask if they need to exchange their currency when traveling to Hawai’i.

The “higher orders of thinking” mentioned above rightly deserve the attention of all teachers, but GIS truly depends on them. A number of important studies have concluded that teachers who use questions emphasizing these skills yielded positive gains on tests of both factual recall and application of thinking skills. Teachers who ask “higher-order” questions promote learning because the questions require students to deal with information in more complex ways information, rather than simply recalling facts. (Redfield 1981) Without higher level questions, GIS is just a map exercise.

With that in mind, let us then turn our attention to the Resources—the computer architectures that make geographic information systems possible.

Resources for Your School GIS Program

Educators can develop an extensive list of available open source and proprietary software, from GRASS and MapServer, to Intergraph, MapPoint and SuperGeo, and many others in between, by using a simple Google™ search. Each application has its specific strengths and particular weaknesses, as well as its intended audience. However, based on our extensive experience with more than 1,000 students at grades 6–12 since 2001, this article will address the features of two popular applications: ArcView/ArcGIS and My World.

Application 1: ArcView / ArcGIS

Figure 1:

ArcView 3.x, main window
Figure 2:

ArcGIS 9.x, main window, ArcMap

ESRI is the world leader in GIS software and produces, among others, ArcExplorer (free via the Internet) and ArcView/ArcGIS (by purchase agreement). While ArcExplorer is certainly convenient because of its access point, the application is essentially a primer and does not have the full functionality that most GIS teachers will eventually want as their students’ skills increase. Two ESRI products—ArcView 3.x and ArcGIS 9.x—make up the greatest share of the educational market. However, without special arrangements, these products will pose a prohibitive financial burden for any school GIS program. A few states, like Idaho, South Dakota and Virginia, have concluded licensing agreements with ESRI and make ArcView 3.3 and ArcGIS 9.x available on CDs, along with supplementary data sets, to every school wishing to use the platform, either free-of-charge or a greatly reduced rate. Regular updates are provided. ESRI no longer supports the Macintosh platform (3.0a) and has retired ArcView 3.2. ESRI moved ArcView 3.3 to “mature support” status in 2005 but has not announced a retirement date.

Application 2: My World 4.1

Figure 3:

My World 4.1, main window in Construct mode

Contrasted with ArcView, which is essentially an application designed by ESRI for GIS professionals, My World (latest release 4.1) was created at Northwestern University by the GEODE Initiative expressly for use by teachers as a classroom tool and has been gaining increasing popularity with teachers and students since the application was released more than three years ago. (Edelson 2006) Pasco Scientific markets the software (

So which application best fits your school’s needs? The following chart may prove helpful in your decision-making process.

classroom considerations ArcView 3.x ArcGIS 9.x My World 4.1
most appropriate grade levels 7th–12th 10th–12th 6th–12th
printed teacher tutorials yes yes yes
online teacher tutorials yes yes yes
application hard drive space (basic) 60MB 800MB 256MB*
data libraries (standard collection) >1.0GB† >1.0GB† 100MB∧
embedded data bases limited limited extensive
Internet-based lessons yes yes yes
Windows platform yes yes yes
Macintosh platform not supported Intel-based only yes
Linux platform no no yes
data libraries displayed in map window no no yes
GPS download capable extension needed yes yes
import data sets from Internet no yes yes
georeferencing (tiffs to shapefiles) no yes no
import jpg into layout yes yes no
text entry into layout yes yes yes
generate PDF maps no no yes
select, combine, intersect, clip yes yes yes
classroom license yes yes yes
school district license yes yes yes
statewide license yes yes no

* default. The allocation can be set to a higher figure at the time of installation.

† The programs have only limited data sets embedded with the applications. Other sets are stored in a central folder.

My World provides a pre-selected, embedded data library including geology, oceanography, etc.

Before choosing an application, lead teachers should take the time to field test the software. Consult this chart to access trial copies of the program discussed in the article.

High school teachers have an additional question to consider before choosing software. If the school intends to include a GIS course in its curriculum as a means to prepare students for university programs or as part of an entry-level vocational curriculum, ArcGIS 9.x is certainly the preferred application, as it is so commonly used by city, county and state governments and other agencies as their GIS tool. On the other hand, in our experience My World proves very suitable for high school GIS studies in geography, the earth sciences and American studies.

Regardless of participating grade levels , schools should always consider where students will complete their GIS work. Resist any efforts to make the computer lab the only repository for GIS software. Computer labs are busy locations, especially if state proficiency examinations require computer access. If the school library and other rooms have computer mini-labs, install the software on all of the terminals, thereby ensuring access to the software before and after school, as well as during lunch periods. All of our junior high school social studies teachers have GIS software loaded on their personal classroom computers to maximize the time available for their professional development as a GIS user.

A Resolve and Commitment for GIS

Once a software choice is made, a school must create a set of manageable installation and management procedures. UCLA coaching great John Wooden has written: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” (Wooden 2005) Bring the district’s network administrator into the GIS “loop.” If My World is chosen, its installation file will be accessed from Pasco’s dedicated web site. As such, multiple computers may be installed with the software simultaneously. Indeed, I have installed the application and completed the setup on 20 computers in less than 40 minutes. Macintosh computers will unzip the file with Stuffit Expander®. The Windows platform will install directly from the downloaded installer file. Coordinate with your network administrator to determine the address of your proxy server, if your district uses one. You will not be able to access dynamic web images (UTM Zones and topographical maps) without an HTTP link.

Installing ArcView is a little more problematic. As the software is provided on CDs, simultaneous installations will require that you upload the installer to your district server. Access will be at the discretion of your network administrator, unless you have been allotted sufficient personal server space to hold the installer and supplementary data sets. If you cannot load the programs to a server, you will need to install the programs one machine at a time. One final note: If you use ArcView 3.x, you will need to select your extensions using the FILE→EXTENSIONS path. In ArcGIS 9.x, the path is TOOLS→EXTENSIONS.

Bringing teacher training into your GIS plan

Effective school GIS programs require a network of knowledgeable faculty. Being an experienced teacher is not enough to maintain success in an educational environment that rapidly changes. (Fullan 1991) Depending on a single GIS practitioner defeats the purpose of professional learning teams. Several studies have shown that GIS is too often confined to science and geoscience programs. (Bednarz 1997) This focus is short-sighted and fails to consider the potential nested in the GIS metadata. The benefits of cross-curricular and interdisciplinary classroom programs, combining the talents of several teachers, are well-attested, the research findings supporting the positive effects of curriculum integration. (Aschbacher 1991) Teacher competency is directly related to student achievement. (Darling-Hammond 1999) All students can achieve, but only if all teachers achieve at higher levels. Professional learning teams, especially those structured on an interdisciplinary template, provide a structure for traditional forms of professional development to produce school-wide improvement in teacher practice and student learning. (Hall 2001) To nurture this approach, our GIS program has offered college courses in both ArcView 3.x and My World 4.1 to teachers representing the social studies, mathematics, science and gifted disciplines. (

An added benefit for us has been the increased level of collegial conferencing, before and after school, on course assignments. Indeed, one teacher, now retired, has returned to enroll in both GIS courses and has spent many hours assisting students in classroom sessions and other teachers.

What are the primary components for a GIS class to train teachers? First, a few words about effective in-service programs. Michigan State University has modeled a replicable and productive curriculum. A well-planned, effective in-service program should include (1) long-range preparation experiences involving all staff members having a stake in the skills being developed, (2) follow-up supportive services meant to refresh those skills, (3) a focus on the teachers' identified needs, (4) the cooperation of teachers and teacher educators in discovering how teachers can continue to grow, (5) the development of knowledge about available resources and necessary research skills, and (6) the recognition of the teacher as the instructional expert. (Johnston 1977)

Given those parameters, this chart outlines some important features of an on-campus GIS teacher training program.

management Post class agendas, tutorials and assignments via district e-mail or the Internet.
assignments Focus the instruction on student skills required for software proficiency. Structure the assignments in a discernible sequence.Include screen captures to address the needs of visual learners.
scheduling Vary the delivery for small group and individual instruction.
practicums Require all participating teachers to act as mentors during student orientations to :learn by teaching."
leadership Focus on lead teachers on each campus at at a grade level.
college credit Negotiate an in-service credit rate and file a syllabus 30 days prior to start of class.
coordination Include computer lab assistants in the instructional process to ensure that students will have a knowledgeable adult available for individual assistance.
followup Create a central repository of GIS lessons and encouragea collegial sharing program for new project ideas. Archive new data sets for inclusion in the school GIS library.
dissemination Investigate avenues to share your GIS program with other schools or school districts. Offer GIS orientations for parents at school open houses.

The following catalogues outline important topics, sorted by the particular software packages, followed by a bibliography of teacher resources.

ArcView / ArcGIS (terms differ from one version to another)

  • View (properties, zoom, pan, full extent)
  • Themes/Layers (.shp, .lyr, .dbf and .shx suffixes; properties)
  • Legend editor (single, graduated and unique values; [adaptation, addition, and subtraction of] classification fields; patterns, foregrounds, backgrounds, outlines and text)
  • Attribute (theme) tables (with data insertion)
  • Geoprocessing wizard, Analyze (clip, intersection and merge)
  • Query builder/Select (single and simultaneous algorithms)
  • Buffers (point and line)
  • Layouts (with labeling, text and .tif image insertion)
  • Special Tools (measuring, draw, center)
  • Projections (with emphasis on explaining differences, i.e. cylindrical v conic)
  • Export (with file management applications)

ArcView 3.x:

Ormsby, Tim; Napoleon, Eileen; and Breslin, Pat. Getting to Know ArcView GIS 3.x. Redlands CA: ESRI Press, 1998.

ArcGIS 9.x:

Gorr, Wilpen L. and Gurland, Kristen S. GIS Tutorial: Workbook for ArcView 9. Redlands CA: ESRI Press, 2007.

Malone, Lyn; Voigt, Christine; Napoleon, Eileen; and Feaster, Anita. Mapping Our World. Redlands CA: ESRI Press, 2005.

My World 4.1

  • Construct mode (and organization of data libraries)
  • Visualize mode (with re-centering projection)
  • Analyze mode (with creating of new layers)
  • Edit mode (with annotation)
  • Editing appearance windows (colorschemes and uniform)
  • Layer information windows
  • Annotation (by region and feature)
  • Select, Combine (Intersect, Union, Subtract, Clip)
  • Editing data libraries
  • File types (shapefiles and layers)
  • Importing data from the Internet and the global positioning system
  • Buffers and contours
  • Layouts (exporting to PDF and JPG formats)
  • Attribute tables (metadata)
  • Measures (scales and distance)
  • Projections (with emphasis on types and their characteristics)

My World GIS. Evanston IL: Northwestern University, 2007. Available online at (along with an index and tools reference guides)

As very few teachers, even those certified in social studies, come to the classroom trained to use GIS, a certain amount of trepidation and resistance can be expected. Technology is not a plausible teaching aid for every teacher. Uncertainty and resistance to change among teachers can gradually be overcome if their “sense of plausibility” and perspective as to what constitutes effective teaching and learning activities is refined. The learning experience that engages the teacher's “sense of plausibility” is ideal and "more worth our while to pursue than the notion of an objectively best method" (Prabhu 1990) GIS amply fulfills that role. And we have discovered that training our teachers with the same assignments as their students will complete reinforces the teachers’ practical knowledge and validates their increasing proficiency, while at the same time demystifying student activities. Indeed, we build practica sessions into the college course outlines.

Bringing a variety of disciplines to the “GIS table” will have a wide and lasting impact. Including six teachers in the training program at Jenifer Junior High School (Lewiston ID) has directly impacted the curricula of more than 500 students each year. That would not happen if, for example, “GIS is Mr. Branting’s pet project.” The effect has been long-lasting. Some of the first students introduced to GIS in 2001 are now GIS and geography majors in college. The Idaho Department of Teacher Certification accepts our GIS courses in fulfillment of the gifted endorsement’s technology requirement.

Effective Reinforcement

Effective in-service and student training should always be sequential and include punctuated reviews. For example, the following activities form our My World sequenced primer lessons for grades 6–9 and are completed with suitable discussion, demon-strations and guided practice in an 80-minute session. Teacher notations have been set in [ ]. Words are capitalized to introduce the students to key function and screen tabs.

  1. From the World data library, add a layer of the continents, sorted by area, with the colorscheme shown as “Rainbow 2” and renamed “Earth’s continents.” Add a “lakes” layer, renamed “lake depths,” of world lakes and set the color scheme to “blue.” Add the “Day/Night” layer. Add the Lines of Latitude & Longitude layer. Click to VISUALIZE and ask for teacher validation. [Analysis question: Why is the “day/night” layer U-shaped? Discussion point: cylindrical projections]
  2. Return to CONSTRUCT mode. Remove the lakes and day/night layers from your map. Change the “Earth’s continents” layer in activity 1 to black outline. From the Geology data library, add the layer of significant earthquakes (1900-1994), sorted by “magnitude.” Change the symbol to a blue + and set it to a size 60. Add a layer of tectonic plates, sorted by length and set to red. Change the projection to Albers Equal-area Conic and zoom to the Gulf of Mexico at a scale of 1:20,000,000. PAN the map as needed. Click to VISUALIZE and ask for teacher validation. [Analysis question: In his book The Origin of Continents and Oceans (1915), Alfred Wegener theorized that the continents were subject to the movement of tectonic plates, at whose junctions earthquakes were more likely to occur. Was he correct? Discussion point: conic projections]
  3. Return to CONSTRUCT mode. Remove all previous layers. Change your projection to Miller Cylindrical. From the United States data library, add the U.S. Counties data, computed by area. Set the outline to 90% transparent. Rename the layer “counties.” Add the states, sorted by name and set to red outline. Rename the layer “states.” ZOOM to the Pacific coast of the conterminous United States. From the Geology library, add the Washington, Oregon and California faults, sorted by length and all set to a deep blue. Click to VISUALIZE and ask for teacher validation. [Analysis questions: For what reason should all of the layers on a map not be portrayed at the same transparency? Extension: Add the rivers of the United States and compare their paths with the location of West Coast faults. Do you see a geographical pattern?]
  4. Return to CONSTRUCT mode. Remove all previous layers. From the Climatology data library, add the layer for the Koepen Climate Classes and set the colorscheme to random. Adjust the OCEAN color to a “globe blue.” From the World data library, add a layer of the continents, sorted by area, set as a black outline and renamed “continent borders.” Add the Lines of Latitude & Longitude. Edit this layer, changing the spacing to 5o and set them to 50% transparent. Change the projection to Orthographic. Click to VISUALIZE. Using the Re-Center Projection Tool, center on the middle of the United States. Ask for teacher validation. [See answer in Figure 4 above. Analysis questions: Why does the climate class layer lack the outline detail of the continent layer? Why is the day/night terminus now a straight line?]
Figure 4:

Our experience has shown that proficiency with these activities is sufficient to prepare the students to move to the next level of instruction dealing with the analysis of data. These new functions have various names, depending on the software: geopro-cessing, query, analyze, select, combine, intersect, et. al. The tasks are essentially identical. GIS becomes a functional tool once students are introduced to the skills necessary for creating their own maps that (1) glean specific data from the cornucopia that is available and (2) answer meaningful questions. ESRI recommends a five-step approach to GIS analysis:

  1. Frame the question. Teachers need to have students answer specific questions using GIS data. Framing the question will dictate what data is most appropriate.
  2. Select your data. Students need to become familiar with the data sets that are available to them.
  3. Choose an analysis method. Analysis most often involves testing the relationships among the metadata of a particular data set or between one or more data sets. The tool has to fit the problem.
  4. Process the data. Answers need to be portrayed graphically; so students will need to decide what format is best, depending on the data being analyzed.
  5. Look at the results. What do the students learn from their maps?
  6. (

Two examples of this process at the preliminary stages of our students’ training in our GIS curriculum using My World 4.1 will serve to demonstrate the possibilities.


A Guided Practice Hypothesis: A direct relationship exists between rainfall amounts and the average sunshine over the same period in South America? (Hunter 2004)

  1. Create a black outline map of the world’s continents, zoomed to South American and labeled as such and set to a scale of 1:60,000,000 in a Cylindrical – equal area projection.
  2. Portray the distribution of areas where 30-year average precipitation (maximum of monthly averages) is greater than or equal to 30cm (1 foot) per month, labeled “30 cm max per month.”
  3. Portray the distribution of areas where the 30-year average sunshine (annual average) is greater than or equal to 50%, labeled “>50% annual sunshine” and set to 40% transparent.
  4. Answer: There is a direct correlation, as one might expect. Areas of high average rainfall amounts will experience less direct sunshine because of the increased cloud cover.

An Independent Practice Hypothesis: The distribution of vegetation types in a given region is directly related to the underlying dominant soils. A problem of this relative complexity suits (1) allowing students to work in pairs and (2) scheduling a class debriefing session to discuss the outcomes achieved.

Answer: “Numerous studies have failed to show consistent relationship between soils and vegetation. A review of basic concepts of soil and vegetation development indicates that vegetation and soils are mutually associated with each other, both being the product of the same environmental variables. The mutual association is between the whole soil and vegetation, not individual soil properties and vegetation or selected attributes of vege-tation. At any scale beyond a very localized application, a universal correlation does not exist between soil properties and vegetation attributes. Even within very restricted geo-graphic bounds, variation between attributes can yield un-tenable results. Soil bodies, when grouped and classified at the soil series level, should correlate reasonably well with habitat type. Conceptually, each habitat type is associated with a unique set of soil series.” (Hironaka, 1990)

Figure 5:

Results of a problem to display seafloor ages with a world elevation map from which the bathymetry has been clipped.

In addition to the resources named above, many similar lessons are available from ESRI through its ArcLessons web site ( Several My World lessons are included. My World maintains an online activity center that contains the curricula of entire GIS courses for middle school science, earth science and environmental science. ( This author has created a set of eight special projects for grades 6-12. (

Evaluating the Results

What has been the reaction from students who have worked with both ArcView 3.x and My World? As our GIS focus is at the middle school level, more than 100 students, grades 7–9, completed a survey that asked them to compare the two software packages. As part of the questioning, the students responded to the following criteria, choosing between the two applications:

criterion ArcView My World
ease of use to put data into the map 5.2% 94.8%
overall look of the screen during use 18.6% 80.4%
ease of use when changing the look of the date 12.4% 87.6%
ease with which I could remember the steps 7.2% 92.8%

We queried the students further, asking them what they liked most about My World, since it was their overwhelming choice. A 7th grader responded: “I love how easy it is to use. It is short and simple to make and doesn’t have all this weird steps that you have to remember.” A classmate added: “I don’t get lost as easily.” A number of students mentioned how much they enjoyed the fact that My World’s libraries are visible in the map design window, thus relieving them of the need to navigate to an external set of data folders. More than a few merely said “I like everything about it.”

Faculty feedback has been universally positive, especially from those teachers who have used ArcView during the last three years. In fact, several teachers were able to begin working with their classes without any assistance from the author after the teachers attend primer sessions with their students. One retired science instructor has observed that My World’s format and presentation are uniquely suited to the young teenage mind, which thrives of immediate feedback and functional simplicity.

“GIS has been a tremendous addition to my teaching curriculum,” comments Scott Gratz, an 8th grade U.S. History teacher. “It has allowed me to incorporate ‘hands on’ geography/history learning with my students. When the students work with the GIS program, they are self-motivated and strive to learn and create. After a GIS session, I hear my students talking about how they enjoyed the experience. Once I started learning the different components of GIS, I wanted to keep learning more, and my students feel the same way when it is taught to them.”

Research has validated that middle school students enjoy engaging in intense, albeit short-lived, learning experiences and prefer active to passive learning. Activities that focus on short-term memory are especially appropriate. (Dyck 2002; Rosenfeld 2002) We anticipate the recurring truth of the old teacher adage that attention span can be determined by the formula “age plus a minute.” Our GIS curriculum provides student hand-outs only during basic training; the students are required to build mental pathways and create strong memories of the functions. We take advantage of the students’ proclivities with structured, immediate-feedback primer lessons and then subsequent activities having clearly-defined outcomes that gradually develop proficiency, then mastery of the GIS software.

Teachers report an increased desire among their students to use GIS as a tool for enriching reports, designing graphics for PowerPoint™ presentations, or completing assignments in which a map would be an appropriate and welcome addition. In order to assess the learning curve effect the software might have on even younger students, we began initiated a GIS program in one elementary school and migrated another from ArcView 3.x to My World, both with 6th grade classrooms. The computer lab coordina-tors report no issues setting up their labs prior to orientation seminars. The same primer activities, a shown above, have been used to introduce our youngest students to GIS.

Extending your GIS class into the field

Figure 6:

Junior high school GIS students mark headstones and record metadata, October 2001

Liberate GIS from the classroom dependency as soon as you can reasonably arrange for it. Students need to solve “real world” problems and test authentic hypo-theses in the field. In October 2001 a group of 7th grade GIS students ventured to a nearby cemetery. Their special problem had two geospatial questions needing answers: (1) In what sequence did the city exhume the graves? and (2) in what pattern were the remains re-interred? To begin, the students created a database of every grave in the Normal Hill Cemetery dating from before 1889 by searching through the more than 19,000 grave sites now located in the grounds. Using Garmin 12 GPS units, they marked each grave as a waypoint with relatively exact latitude and longitude coordinates and uploaded that data into ArcView 3.x as .txt files that could be sorted and displayed as separate themes to discern spatial patterns. (Figure 6)

Figure 7:

Distribution of reburials in Lewiston ID, c. 1890–1893

More than 120 graves were found for the period 1867–1888. When projected onto a TIGER/Line Data centerline plan for the city, the answer to the second research question led to the solution for the first after it became abundantly clear that the most ordered patterning of re-interments occurred with graves dating from the latest period: 1885-1888. This unmistakable finding helped the class to determine that the graves in the original cemetery had been exhumed beginning with the latest graves and proceeding to the oldest, confirming a suspicion as to the location of the entrance to the city cemetery, an entrance that had not been discovered from any photographic evidence. And all that from what, at the time, seemed to be a simple GIS assignment. Interested teachers can replicate this project in their own communities using the lesson “What’s So Spatial About the Cemetery,” available at:

Generated from a few GPS points inserted into a computer centerline map, the 5th Street Cemetery Necrogeographical Study eventually earned a host of national and international awards, including selection as a finalist for the 2005 “Save Our History” Award given by The History Channel™ and the 2004 Criterion Award from the Association of American Geographers for his significant contribution to the practice of applied geography. “This project proved to be a riddle with many interesting twists,” (Wagner 2004) Asking the right questions regularly opens the doors to powerful student learning experiences both inside and outside the classroom, especially when there is a real mystery involved with the answer. (Branting 2007) GIS fieldwork has a potential limited only by your field of vision. And you need not create an original project.

In 2002, Dr. Christian Tiberius, a lecturer in geodesy at the Delft (Netherlands) University of Technology, conducted a simple study of a GPS receiver’s accuracy by marking a predetermined point with 1,712 waypoints taken over a 14 ½ hour period at regular intervals to take advantage of the varied satellite constellations that form during the day. His project meant to corroborate data obtained by the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which assesses the standard positioning service performance through continuous observations recorded at more than a dozen sites positioned strategically around the country. The FAA reports “95 percent horizontal and vertical accuracies in its quarterly performance reports; these values are usually between 5 and 7 meters and around 8 to 10 meters, respectively.” (Tiberius 2003) Teachers can easily replicate the data acquisition process and map this project, as we did in 2004, obtaining essentially the same results with six units rather than one and teaching students a lot about GPS, spreadsheets and statistics in the process. ( Teachers should investigate opportunities for students to use GIS as a means to show change over time. “Spatial thinking is at the core of understanding change over time and variability across space.” (Aspinall 2005) A project might be as simple as showing the historic range of the African giraffe as compared to its much-reduced current habitat. Students know that habitat reduction has taken place but are unable to visualize its extent. A GIS approach can answer the question as to which avenue range (and habitat) reduction may take—aggregated, fractal, random, or nested.

Figure 9:

comparison of giraffe habitats (Geographic Projection)

A comparison of the statistics of the habitat layers reveals that the giraffe have lost nearly 60% of its historical range (Figure 7). Students can also easily identify the isolated pockets of endangered herds that now appear in the data.

Following this quasi-chronology theme, teachers and students using ArcGIS 9.x will find rectifying a challenging technique that allows the user to match historical maps to current data sets. City or town GIS data always includes parcel and centerline sets. These sets can be rectified to old surveys that have been converted to TIFF files, matching three or more survey points. One important source of vintage maps is the Sanborn® Fire Insurance collection. More than 660,000 maps were created of some 12,000 cities and towns across the United States, spanning the period from 1867-1970. Drawn to a scale of 50 feet to the inch, these maps were developed to assist fire insurance companies assess risks. The information can include the outline of each building, the size, shape and construction materials, heights, and function of structures, location of windows and doors. The maps also give street names, street and sidewalk widths, property boundaries, building use, and house and block numbers. The accuracy and uniformity of Sanborn maps make them valued primary sources for historians and GIS practitioners alike. Guided by a manual that included precise instructions to ensure accuracy over time, surveyors would redraw the maps every 5 to 7 years; and updates were accomplished by personal inspections of the buildings in the mapped area.

Figure 10:

Lewiston, Idaho Territory, March 1888, showing both parcels and structures. Image courtesy of ProQuest®

If your city, town or county GIS office has created a structures shapefile by digitizing from an aerial image, buildings can be compared to determine where structures are still standing or once stood. It is an easy leap to sequencing the display of data to show the emerging pattern of construction in a given area of the city. “An increasing number of historians, particularly those dealing with world history or the history of large geographic regions, are becoming interested in using geographic information systems for research and teaching.” (Owens 2007) GIS and history are, to the surprise of most historians, mutually compatible disciplines and readily enhance each other if given the opportunity. (Knowles 2008; Gregory 2008)

Figure 11:

2006 parcel data rectified to an 1874 survey, Lewiston ID

Finally, but no less valuable as a class project, teacher do well to investigate International GIS Day, scheduled in November each year. GIS Day is principally sponsored by the National Geographic Society, the Association of American Geographers, University Consortium for Geographic Information Science, the United States Geological Survey, The Library of Congress, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and ESRI. Sponsors expect more than 80 countries to participate in the 2008 event by holding local events such as company and university open houses, hands-on workshops, community expos, school assemblies, field trips and more. Invite the community to your school and teach them the basics of the global positioning system and GIS. Even better, have your GIS students teach the sessions. You can obtain free materials by accessing the project’s main web site. (

Summary of Findings

  • After actually testing the software or consulting with practitioners, choose a software package that best fits your grade level(s) audience and curriculum needs.
  • Negotiate and obtain a software site license that will cover your entire school or school district.
  • Negotiate a consistent and regular schedule of computer lab GIS sessions each month that teachers may sign up for to (1) provide students with training or (2) complete special lessons in their particular subject area.
  • Develop a set of sequential training lessons to orient both students and teachers as a group to the benchmark software features and functions.
  • Train several building and/or district faculty members for software proficiency
  • with extended lessons that will equip them with skills to answer building-level questions.
  • Offer affordable college credit(s) as a professional incentive and recertification purposes.
  • Create lessons that focus on the use of GIS in structured field exercises.
  • Model and encourage the use of GIS as a solution-finding tool in a wide variety of disciplines.
  • Conduct refresher and/or retraining sessions with teachers to add to and refine their battery of GIS skills, with mastery as a goal.
  • Create a repository of GIS lessons to which teachers can contribute and from which other teachers may borrow.
  • Post original lessons created by your teachers to ESRI’s ArcLessons web site or to the My World Activity Center.
Figure 12:

6th graders explore My World during an orientation seminar. Photo: Karen Davis.


“Schools should be the first true 21st century environments. The designs of these environments can greatly influence behavior and especially motivation and performance.” (Pesanelli 1999) The federal government, states and school districts have expended hundreds of millions of dollars to integrate technology into classrooms, often without a clearly defined or rational plan. Limiting technology to word-processing and simulation/tutorial delivery systems is runs counter to the “new basics” our emerging century. Computers are elemental to the “new basics” in what now termed “the telematic age,” a world in which we monitor our movements under the umbrella of GPS navigation, integrated hands-free cell phones and wireless communications (Thornburg 2002) The gathering, storage, retrieval and analysis of data are now as important as the data itself. Knowing how to manage information is a very real survival skill in the 21st Century. The real world no longer requires students to remember everything; students must rather master how to access the information they need, a skill with “buzz words” like menu, sort, select, query and data base. The information explosion is all too real: A new book in fiction is published in the United States every 30 minutes. (Miller 2004) Library cataloguers compile data in up to 30 main fields to describe a single volume, not counting the hundreds of subfields available to them. Efficient information-gathering and management are now powerful life skills and directly correlate to successful solution finding. (Osborn 1993; Nadler 1999) And, goodness knows, the world needs more solution finders.

In 2006 a report from the National Research Council (NRC) stressed the importance of spatial thinking in everyone's life and recommended embedding spatial thinking across the K–12 curriculum. According to the Council’s findings, geographic information systems (GIS) technology can confidently play a powerful role in promoting spatial thinking. In part, the report said: “Jerome Bruner challenged fifth-grade students to think spatially for themselves, using a paper outline map and a pencil. (Bruner 1958) Today, students can be challenged to think spatially for themselves, using a database, a virtual map, and a mouse. In both cases, the responses from students are based on a spatial reasoning process that involves critical observation, exploration, posing questions, developing hypotheses, and generating answers. Both sets of tools offer the power to learn.” (NRC 2006)

Psychologists once believed that our individual levels of spatial skills were biologically encrypted. Evidence from subsequent studies indicates otherwise; training enhances spatial performance. (Uttal 2000) Unfortunately, spatial education has proven to be a uniformly neglected topic in America’s schools, much as is creative problem-solving. (Shea 1993) The widespread use of computer architectures to process geographic metadata has convincingly transformed geography into a legitimate spatial science and empowers GIS users with the tools to explore the intersections of the manmade and natural worlds. “Much of geography's power lies in the insights it sheds on the nature and meaning of the evolving spatial arrangements and landscapes that make up the world in which we live.” (Murphy 1998)

The power of a school’s influence will never be a matter of the scores its students achieve on some standardized exam or state proficiency test, not in its No Child Left Behind rating. The legacy of a school’s effectiveness will be ultimately measured by how successfully its students deal with a three—dimensional, geographic world whose distances and differences, time and space, have been compressed by the trinity of technology, trade and telecommunications. “It was naive to imagine that the global reach of the internet would make geography irrelevant. Wireline and wireless technologies have bound the virtual and physical worlds closer than ever... Actually, geography is far from dead.” (Economist 2003)

Figure 13:

group-penetrating radar scans, Normal Hill Cemetery, Lewiston ID GIS research group, Jenifer Junior High School, 2003.

GIS has given new truth to the words of geographer William Hughes (1818-1876): “Mere names of places...are not geography...know by heart a whole gazetteer full of them would not, in itself, constitute anyone a geographer. Geography has higher aims than this: it seeks to classify phenomena (alike of the natural and of the political world, in so far as it treats of the latter), to compare, to generalize, to ascend from effects to causes, and, in doing so, to trace out the great laws of nature and to mark their influences upon man. This is ‘a description of the world’—that is Geography. In a word Geography is a Science—a thing not of mere names but of argument and reason, of cause and effect.” (Hughes 1863)

If sense of space is crucial to personal and global awareness, then GIS is the stable pillar on which to rest our schools’ all too-often-ignored geographic curriculum.


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