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GIS in the Classroom Blog 2: How Can We Teach About GIS and Why is it Important?

Brendan Conway

4th May 2023

It’s very important to teach with and about GIS as early as possible in the geography curriculum.

‘But students don’t have access to IT’ is a common and understandable response to this mandate. We will consider some of the various workarounds which can address this issue. A key point here is that whenever we do use GIS in our teaching, we should take the opportunities to mention it explicitly, so that slowly but surely, it becomes ‘part of the furniture’ of geography.

How can we teach students about GIS?

Perhaps the most straightforward solution is to teach about GIS ‘from the front’ using easily accessible GIS viewers. One really good way is to use a flight tracker such as FlightRadar24.com . Each aircraft shown on a flight tracker is carrying lots of valuable near real time data such as the aircraft type, airline (or other owner), registration, places of origin and destination, speed and altitude. It is GIS data because it is ‘georeferenced’. By scrolling down the panel on the left, we can see how georeferencing happens, depending entirely on the precise latitude and longitude of the aircraft. If the aircraft is in flight, its latitude and longitude can be seen changing in near real time. As with all GIS, the latitude and longitude are given in decimal degrees.

When we teach the eight-point compass directions at Key Stage 2, this needs to be revisited in Key Stage 3 and thereafter. Although bearings don’t appear explicitly in geography programmes of study, teaching of them is justified because they are often used in GIS applications. They also appear in the GCSE Mathematics programmes of study.[1]

Bearings are used in various forms of navigation from hill walking to aviation and shipping. We can also use bearings to visualise data.

This interactive web map Tectonic plate motion visualises the future movement of tectonic plates in 5-million-year steps. The data includes the direction of each plate’s movement. For example, at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the bearing for the North American plate is around 275-280° whereas the Eurasian plate is moving the other way on a bearing of approximately 85°.

Why is GIS important for saving lives and property?

As well as the examples above, GIS is often used to manage the risks from atmospheric and tectonic hazards and to promote greater resilience.

Following Hurricane Ian in October 2022, remote sensing was used extensively to provide quick and accurately-located damage assessments. In this interactive web map ‘Hurricane Ian September 2022 (Web AppBuilder)’ we can see how aerial and satellite imagery was used to study the damage at Pine Island, Florida using data from @NOAA and @fema and the ‘Swipe’ widget in ArcGIS Online.

GIS can help to save lives from tectonic events such as the Turkey earthquake 6 Feb 2023. The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team conducted rapid impact assessments using the crowdsourced GIS expertise.

Hopefully these examples demonstrate how GIS can be more easily and effectively integrated into the curriculum.

[1] Mark Enser has highlighted the need for us to make such curriculum decisions where the guidance from programmes of study lacks detail:

‘We may decide that students should know about the formation of meanders, but when, if ever, do we talk about helicoidal flows and thalwegs? This is something that each curriculum creator is left to decide using their expertise in children’s education development and subject expertise.’

How can we teach disciplinary knowledge? By Mark Enser (TES Magazine 17th October 2021)

Brendan Conway

Brendan has over thirty years’ experience as a teacher of Geography and head of department. He led his current department to become a Geographical Association Centre of Excellence. In addition to being an author of geographical texts and resources, he also works in Initial Teacher Training (ITT), Erasmus Plus projects and supports schools with GIS as an Esri Geomentor.

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