What Is GIS and How to Use It in Education

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) allow students to map and visualize data in all content areas.

Wavebreak Media / GETTY Images 

Maps are effective teaching tools for geography, but when maps are combined with technology, they can become visually powerful through a geographic information system (GIS). The combination of maps and data can produce digital maps that engage students in the science of where things are. The interactive features in digital maps can help students, for example, learn how things have changed over time or to research solutions to real-world problems at any grade level.

Key Takeaways: GIS in the Classroom

  • Geographic Information Systems can produce digital maps that engage students in the science of where things are.
  • GIS are able to manipulate and analyze data as a 3-D map of an environment.
  • There are different GIS that educators can integrate into lessons in any content area. Systems like Google Earth and ESRI provide training, resources, and support to educators.

What Is a GIS?

The acronyms for tools of location can be confusing. The science of location is a geographic information science also called GIS. Location science has always been a part of geography. In contrast, a GIS (system) manipulates and analyzes data to present it spatially, as a 3-D map of an environment. This data can be collected from multiple sources. These sources can include global positioning satellites (GPS) as part of the global positioning system (GPS). These satellites relay real-time information using radio signals from space to pinpoint an exact location. In summary, the data from GPS devices is collected by GIS (systems), which is then used by GIS (scientists).

Google Earth for the Classroom

The most obvious example of the use of GIS in classrooms today is the use of Google Earth, an open source program that can easily be downloaded and installed for immediate use. Google Earth offers location searches and 3-D orbits around those locations.

There are tutorials for educators and also topics for educators which include the writing of story maps using "geographic context on the web with locations, photos, and videos."

Educators can use already prepared explorer adventures with detailed information about different places to share with students. Examples of topics available using Google Voyager include:

  • "Black History Month" lessons featuring locations where Black Culture has changed the trajectory of American history.
  • "Myths and Legends from Around the World" lessons featuring the locations of myths from China, India, Italy, the United States, Australia, Greece, Egypt, and Scandinavia.
  • "How the Wind Becomes Electricity" lessons featuring the location of an off-shore wind farm in the North Sea and the Arctic.

Google Earth also offers cross-curricular activities called Warm-up Passports. Each activity is connected to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or content area frameworks such as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

There are also opportunities to integrate Google Earth with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) so that educators can offer students virtual field trips.

Examples of Google Earth GIS Lessons and Activities

The Warm-up Passports lessons in Google Earth require teachers to use the "I’m Feeling Lucky" and Street View in Google Earth “to randomly select a location in the world and then relate that location to a disciplinary concept.” The Warm-up Passports can be used for different subjects and grade levels in making cross-curricular connections. Examples include:

  • Math Grade 5: Double (triple, quadruple) the area of this location. Write the new area in square feet. If the area of this location was divided in half, what would the size of each part be in square feet?
  • Math Grade 7: Research the average annual temperature in this location for last year. Scientists predict that temperatures will increase by 6% globally this year. Write two equivalent expressions to represent this change.
  • Social Studies Grade 6: Research the biggest industry of this location. What does that tell you about how people make a living there?
  • Social Studies Grade 8: What transportation services are available in this location?
  • ELA Grades 6-8: Identify or research one example of how humans have changed the physical environment of this location. Overall, was this change positive or negative? Use specific details to support your answer. Write a poem about the physical characteristics of this location that includes the following elements: rhyme scheme, alliteration, and stanzas.

ESRI GIS in the Classroom

The Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) also offers GIS to educators for classroom use. Like Google Earth, there are subject area content resources for grade levels K-12 using a GIS.

On the ESRI website, teachers can use GeoInquiries™, which are available without a login or download. The description for these on the ESRI site reads “short (15 minutes), standards-based inquiry activities for teaching map-based content found in commonly used textbooks.” There are 15-20 activities per topic, and many of these activities can be modified for hands-on engagement.

ESRI also features educator training under the online ESRI Academy. There are course modules that demonstrate strategies for integrating GIS to support instruction and discussion. There is also a Mentors Program to support teachers. Student competitions using ArcGIS story maps are linked on ESRI’s website.

Educators and administrators in the United States can request a free ArcGIS for Schools Bundle for instructional use by completing a form on the ESRI website. 

Examples of Lessons and Activities Using ESRI

Like the plans in Google Earth, ESRI’s detailed lesson plans are centered on a geographic context to help students connect lessons with real places.

  • In ELA, there are lessons for American Literature in which students can explore the geographic context of Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
  • In mathematics, students could site a water tower shared by two towns at the midpoint and determine the costs involved using the Pythagorean theorem.
  • For a world history class, there are lessons organized around story maps for the Cradles of Civilization, the Silk Roads: Then and Now, and Early European exploration.
  • Environmental science students can investigate marine debris, the role of ocean gyres, and how humans impact trash accumulation.

Whatever the platform, educators who use GIS in the classroom engage their students in inquiry-driven, problem-solving activities that are aligned to state standards. The application of GIS in the classroom can also prepare students to consider a variety of career pathways that are in demand.

GIS for Education Policy

GIS helps students think critically about authentic problems by using real-time data, but there are other educational applications. A GIS can support large and small school districts in decision and policy making. For example, a GIS can provide district administrators and community safety experts the information about school buildings and surrounding areas to design and manage safety programs. In other examples, GIS data analysis of the community's transportation infrastructure can help streamline bus routes. When communities experience population shifts, a GIS can help districts in making decisions about building new schools or when to close old ones. The GIS can also provide school district administrators with tools to visualize patterns in student needs in attendance, academic achievement, or after-school support.

Students Know GIS

Students are already familiar with GIS in game applications as a blend of real and virtual environments such as Pokémon Go, the mobile app which was downloaded 500 million times worldwide in its first year (July 2016).

Students who play video games would be familiar with the urban environments created by GIS software, such as City Engine. Different GIS software is used for film, simulations, and virtual reality.

Finally, any student who has been in a car with GPS or has used a mobile application with interactive maps applications from Google, Bing, Apple, or Waze has experienced how the data from GPS and analyzed by GIS (systems) can blend their real world with a virtual world.

Student familiarity with GIS helps their understanding of how GIS applications operate in their world. They may have enough background knowledge through personal experience that they can help their teachers become more comfortable in learning about GIS!