Geographic Education and the GIS Professional

December 15, 2011 1 Comment

By: Ron Bruder, VP/Director of Technology

The shortcomings in the geographic knowledge of American K-12 students was again reiterated this past summer when the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) “report card” was released.  Less than one-third of elementary, middle and high school students showed a proficiency in geography.   While students in fourth grade had a slight improvement since the last 2001 testing, eighth and twelfth graders stayed stagnant or regressed in that time.

There are many theories put forth as to the cause of these deficiencies, ranging from geographic teaching not matching the learning styles of the modern student, to narrowing curriculums geared toward standardized testing that eliminate geographic subject matter.  The test results, however, are definitive even if one gives a little leeway to assuage the biases of standardized testing.   Our future adults will not be prepared to enter a world that increasingly requires spatial knowledge to understand the complex social, political and economic relationships that exist in our world.

Indeed the traditional deficiency of not being able to “find something on a map” is part of the dilemma, but the problem is much greater than that.  In particular, the testing revealed the students’ shortcomings in spatial problem-solving and in grasping the concept of spatial dynamics and interaction.  For example, a fourth grader is considered proficient if they are able to recognize factors that prevent or contribute to soil erosion when looking at a map of land use, land cover and slope, a benchmark that was generally not met.

Obviously, resolving problems of that complexity requires a familiarity with map interpretation, understanding and other map-related skills.  Geographic Information Systems are a fantastic tool to foster the growth of these skill sets among our youth.  The problem is that while GIS is now generally ubiquitous and relatively inexpensive, powered by tools such as Google Earth and educational initiatives from ESRI, there is a general lack of awareness and understanding of these powerful options by many in primary and secondary education.

GIS professionals can play an important role by working to inform educators and educational system decision-makers of the GIS teaching assets that are available to them.  Opportunities also exist for GIS professionals to work directly with students.

GeoMentor Program
A joint effort by National Geographic and ESRI, known as the GeoMentor Program (, is specifically designed to get more GIS professionals involved in education.  The program helps GIS professionals find schools and other settings where they can serve as advisers to students and teachers in the configuration and use of GIS in their daily activities.  The program web site guides a potential mentor through learning about the program and subsequently connecting with opportunities where their skills can be brought to bear.

Making educators aware and even supporting their use of some valuable internet resources is another way we can supplement and further the use of GIS in education.

Besides hosting the GeoMentor program, ESRI also recently launched the first in a series of free online courses geared toward teachers teaching GIS.  Entitled “Teaching with GIS: Introduction to Using GIS in the Classroom,” the class presents strategies for integrating GIS to support instruction, discussion, and extended learning on any topic.  This class is available at, and we’re told similar offerings will follow.

US GeoMentor Participants

Another resource is TeachSpatial, a portal of “resources for spatial teaching and learning” that contains collections of well-organized digital libraries and links that are geared toward promoting and strengthening geographic thinking and problem-solving.  The site is accessible at  Of note at the TeachSpatial site is the 2006 report by National Research Council entitled “Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum.”  The full report can be viewed online at

Similar to TeachSpatial, but providing more actual hands-on problem-solving, a new program from the University of Minnesota called Geothentic provides situated and authentic problems to solve using GIS tools in an online environment.  Examples include assessing climate change, analyzing the spread of  Avian flu and locating and building a hospital in the city of San Francisco.  Your Geothentic experience can be started at

Just as importantly as the resources discussed above, however, it is critical to continue to remind and illustrate to educators that modern GIS tools are not solely a benefit that is specific to geography studies.  GIS is a technology that is broadly applicable to numerous disciplines, including traditional and social sciences, business management and marketing, and politics.  GIS is a fitting way to infuse geographic understanding and knowledge into non-geography curriculums by employing the technology to visualize geographic phenomena and promote spatial analysis and problem solving in those fields of study.    In fact, with the diminishing room in curriculums for dedicated geography studies, it can be argued that this dispersed model of applied GIS across school disciplines is vital to improving geographic knowledge in our youth.

The information supplied in this article gives our broad network of GIS professionals a means to begin to bolster the geographic education system in the United States of tomorrow.  By illustrating firsthand the benefits of GIS technology and how it can be used cross-discipline to improve geographic knowledge, we can be a integral part of that success.

Share on Facebook Tags: , , General
One Comments to “Geographic Education and the GIS Professional”
  1. phil davis says:

    Might check Resources @ GeoTech Center as well

A GoogleEarth Christmas to Remember

By: JoAnn Parks, GIS Project Manager After a big Christmas dinner, the nieces and nephews all scrambled to the...