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Feb 11, 2006

Schools Using GIS To Teach Students To Think Spatially

Today's students need to learn to think spatially, a new report by the National Research Council says. One way to do that is to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Since GIS software used by professionals is too complex for most students, a team at Northwestern University has developed GIS software specifically designed to meet the needs of elementary and secondary teachers and students.

Daniel Edelson, associate professor of education and computer science at the university explains, "Five years ago, we recognized the need for student-friendly GIS software."” The result of his team's effort is My World GIS. My World is a geographic information system that makes it easy for students to use large data sets to investigate Earth and environmental science phenomena. Using My World, students can display and manipulate real-world geographic data in much the way that GIS professionals do.

First published in 2004, My World was designed to meet the needs of teachers, and work within the constraints of school computing environments. It is in use in schools across the United States. "“My World software's unique strength is in enabling students as young as middle school to visualize and analyze geographic data,"” said Professor Edelson, who is also director of Northwestern's Geographic Data in Education Initiative (GEODE).

Some school projects using the software include a middle school curriculum on plate tectonics developed by GEODE. My World allows students to create dynamic maps with as many as 100,000 data points showing earthquakes, volcanoes, land elevation and sea floor depth. The students analyze the data to explain the origin of different earth structures, map the boundaries of tectonics, and determine the direction of plate movement. The image is an example of a map created during such a project.

Students have also used My World to investigate the impact of mine runoff on water quality in the Appalachians; the effect of climate change on glaciers in Greenland; and the impact of the Gold Rush and westward expansion on Native American tribes. In these examples, My World allows students to view and analyze scientific or historical data in the form of dynamic, customizable maps. Students can also use data they collect themselves with the system.

Professor Edelson and his team at GEODE are investigating the hypothesis that using GIS to visualize large quantities of data not only helps students to develop spatial reasoning abilities, but also allows them to learn important science and geography content.