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Free Tools: GIS Mapping and STEM Education

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article by Roger Palmer and Tom Baker. Palmer engages students with GIS at Bishop Dunne High School in Dallas, TX, while Baker encourages the use of GIS in the classroom at Kansas State University. This article originally appeared in TechEdge, a quarterly magazine for Texas Computer Education Association members. To join or for more information, visit

Have you ever wondered why pirate movies are usually set in the Caribbean Ocean? What made the Caribbean region so special? Have there been other areas in the world where sailors sought an easier life at the expense of kings or businessmen in far-away lands?

Pirates were the geographers of opportunity on the high seas and routinely thought geographically in order to improve their economic situations. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, where were goods being transported and transferred in bulk? Nowhere else on earth was the concentration of wealth more prevalent than throughout the Caribbean and along the southeast coast of the growing English, French, and Spanish colonies that would become the United States of America. At what other points would bandits position themselves to plunder riches? Any such path of trade would afford some type of spinoff economy based upon grabbing the goods that fell off ships and trains along the way.

Think of some of the great trading networks: the Silk Road, the spice routes, Western Union routes to the Old West, or even today’s heavily traveled ocean carrier routes for cargo and oil shipments from the Mideast across the Indian ocean to China, Japan, Russia, Korea, and the west coast of the US and Canada. Piracy pops up in geographically fortuitous positions, places of lesser economic means near trade routes of high-value goods. Understanding these factors from history allows us to determine where these problems will continue to arise and how to address them.

Modern-day tools like geographic information systems (GIS) technology can help us make the most of “spatial” data to help today’s classrooms visit even the most remote places on Earth and to understand complex phenomena through data analysis. There are many tools available to both visualize and analyze these phenomena in any school or in relation to any subject.

Thinking Spatially with STEM and GISspatial thinking

Whether or not we realize it, we all use mental “spatial” skills on a daily basis – from packing the trunk of a car or playing a video game or musical instrument to mapping water-quality data collected with our students. Spatial thinking activities can easily be found across all science, math, history and language arts subject areas.

According to the National Research Council’s Learning to Think Spatially (2006), spatial thinking combines space representations (like a computer modeling program or a physical manipulative) and cognitive processes for reasoning. We use spatial thinking to structure and solve all kinds of problems. Think back to the pirates. We identified several spatial (and in this case, geographic) concepts: place, area, points, routes, networks, lines and a few others. These spatial concepts are what form the building blocks of GIS and, more importantly, spatial thinking and problem solving.

In just the last year, university researchers Uttal and Cohen finished a very large study, concluding that spatial thinking was critical for helping students learn STEM content and find early success in STEM careers. Evidence is beginning to mount supporting the critical need to explicitly teach about spatial thinking, as it underlies so much of our academic and personal lives.

How do we teach spatial thinking? The previously mentioned National Research Council report recommended the use of GIS as a great way to teach students about subject matter content while developing increased spatial thinking ability. The more recently published NRC report Understanding the Changing Planet encourages thinkers to leverage the unique combination of skills from the field of geography if we are to address the world’s most vexing, long-term, population-threatening problems. You can investigate these issues with the interactive tools at information systems

GIS on the Web

A GIS user can map and analyze a wide range of real-world data across almost any subject area or career path imaginable. With GIS, students can map the migratory path of animals or insects, retell a literary classic, show historic troop movements on a battlefield, or perform statistical analysis and create visually stunning maps based on that analysis. GIS can use high-resolution base map imagery or perform powerful analytics like calculating the geographic center of a data set, creating a “heat map” indicating activity intensity, or even displaying data in four dimensions.

While the desktop GIS tools have the greatest flexibility and power, newer Web-based tools like are easy to use, free, and let students perform the most important GIS tasks.

  1. maps allow students to use spatial boundaries in the form of high-resolution maps depicting content, political maps show states and counties units, and census maps showing census tracks and block groups. Current Map Story maps highlight the final patterns of the 2008 elections between Obama and McCain. Dozens of other stories are told at Keep posted on the GEO-SIG Web portal for this current election as it becomes available.
  2. allows students to explore how objects can vary across space. These tools use engineering level tools to explore how elevations change across local areas such as the newly formed central Texas Canyon Lake region or across global areas such as an entire continent, Himalayas, or even probe the ocean depths. Use the following urls: or to explore worldwide terrains.
  3. Students can use to study congressional districts or school attendance boundaries to understand how an object’s composition can impact its size or shape. Try the Texas School performance comparator,29.5861,-96.3336,30.8747, or for more comparison capability, see,3464983.54868365,-10727263.1652148,3601960.14967545.
  4. For those of you who want to explore more deeply how to create your own maps for classroom use, go to


National Research Council. (2006). Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum. Washington: National Academies Press.

Uttal, D. H., & Cohen, C. A. (2012). Spatial Thinking and STEM Education: When, Why, and How? In B. Ross (Ed.), Psychology of Learning and Motivation Volume 57, 147-181. Oxford: Academic Press.

National Research Council. (2008). Understanding a Changing Planet: a Focus on Geographic Problems in the Early 21st Century. Washington: National Academies Press.

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