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GIS Brings "Real Life"
To Learning


A Geographic Information System (GIS) combines maps and information databases to produce graphic displays that allow users to see and manipulate data in new ways. Learn how a GIS works and how to create your own GIS classroom activities. Included: Online resources for GIS lessons, activities, and projects.

NASA used it to determine landing sites for the Mars Surveyor. The National Forest Service used it to predict the environmental effects of mining on Arizona's Prescott National Forest. The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses it to decide which crops to plant and which pests to protect crops from. School administrators use it to determine school district boundaries and school bus stops. Students in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania used it to measure radon gas levels in local housing developments. Students in Boston used it to study the water quality of the Muddy River. Students in Detroit, Michigan, are using it to locate, identify, and map hazards and dangerous conditions in their neighborhoods. Most likely, you've used it yourself -- without even realizing it -- to plan a road trip or locate a local landmark, for example.

What is this versatile tool that has been quietly revolutionizing modern data collection and analysis? It is called a Geographic Information System, or GIS.


A GIS is a computer-based system that collects, stores, displays, manipulates, and analyzes data, and then links the information to locations on a map. The GIS stores the map-based data in layers, with each layer containing a single specific type of data. Those data layers then can be manipulated and analyzed, either individually or in combination with other layers.

In other words, a GIS stores layers of information about a place, combines and analyses the information to provide a better understanding of that place, and then displays the information graphically -- on a map, chart, or table, for example -- on a computer screen.

The basic components of a GIS are the:

  • hardware. The hardware includes the computer workstation that runs the GIS software and any other peripheral hardware, such as a printer, scanner, input device, storage system (hard drive or CD).
  • software. The GIS application package is used to create, edit, and analyze data. The key components of GIS software are the tools for entering and manipulating information, a database management system, the tools that create the digital maps, and a graphical user interface. Some frequently-used application packages include AGIS (shareware); ArcView, ArcExplorer (freeware), and other products from ESRI. You can find more GIS Software Resources at the GIS Lounge.
  • data. Data for a GIS comes in three forms: spatial data, or the locations and shapes of map features, such as mountains, roads, countries, and cities; tabular data, or data that describes map features, such as the height of mountains or population of cities; and image data, such as photographs, satellite images, and scanned documents. Data to be entered into a GIS program can be obtained in a variety of ways. Commercial vendors, for example, provide data for a fee, while many government agencies, such as the U.S. Geological Survey or the U.S. Census Bureau, offer free data sources.
  • human resources. Trained and knowledgeable people also are an integral part of a GIS; those experts include cartographers, information analysts, programmers, system administrators, and others.


A GIS, therefore, is a collection of hardware, software, data, and people working together to merge maps and information databases and produce displays that allow users to see data in new ways, to assess real-world problems, and to develop real world solutions to those problems.

Used in the classroom, GIS can encourage critical thinking, promote global awareness, strengthen and extend technology skills, extend and expand your curriculum, introduce students to real-world technology applications, instill students with a sense of place, and create in them a sense of community.

Best of all, using GIS is fun, challenging, and motivating for students and teachers alike.


Before using GIS in your classroom, be sure to view the presentation GIS: A Thinker's Tool. That slide show will explain, step-by-step, the process for using a GIS to collect, input, and analyze data, point out the benefits and challenges of using GIS in the classroom, and provide ideas for some simple classroom lessons and projects.

Then try one of the following online GIS lesson plans and projects:


  • Map Machine. Each of the Map Machine's maps is created using GIS.
  • Teaching With GIS
  • Geographic Information Systems. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) offers this thorough, highly graphic, and easy-to-understand overview of GIS technology.
  • GIS Resources on the Web. This "list of useful Web starting points concerning learning GIS, GIS applications, and sources of GIS data" was compiled by Harvard "Geographic Data Wrangler" Paul Cote.
  • GIS/GPS in K-12 Education. This site provided by the Berrien County (Michigan) Intermediate School District includes tutorials, data, lessons, and more.
  • Resources for GIS
  • USGS Learning Web. The USGS provides many resources for teachers and students -- too many to mention -- but the MapWizard is a good place to begin.
  • This portal to GIS information on the Web created by ESRI, a GIS software developer includes a section of Free GIS Software.
  • GIS Day. Sponsored by the National Geographic Society, the Association of American Geographers, University Consortium for Geographic Information Science, the United States Geological Survey, The Library of Congress, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and ESRI, GIS Day will be held on November 15, 2006.
  • GIS Lounge. This GIS information portal is maintained by the former Guide to GIS.
  • GeoCommunity. This GIS online portal also publishes a daily publication that reaches nearly 40,000 readers.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Updated 04/23/2009