A newly published report by the National Research Council (NRC) urging educators to teach K-12 students to think spatially and to use geographic information systems (GIS) to do so underscores the importance of educational research underway at Northwestern University.
Because geographic information systems are designed for use by scientists and are too complex for classroom use, the NRC report calls for the development of GIS software specifically designed to meet the needs of elementary and secondary teachers and students.
In fact, a Northwestern research team already has developed such a geographic information system software tool. "Five years ago, we recognized the need for student-friendly GIS software," said Daniel Edelson, associate professor of education and computer science. With funding from the National Science Foundation, Edelson' research team designed My World GIS.
My World GIS is a powerful 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 professional scientists do.
"My World software's unique strength is in enabling students as young as middle school to visualize and analyze geographic data," said Edelson, who also is director of Northwestern's Geographic Data in Education Initiative (GEODE).
First published in 2004, My World takes into account the needs of teachers and constraints of school computing environments. It is already in use in schools throughout the United States.
In a middle school curriculum on plate tectonics developed by GEODE, for example, My World gives students the ability 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.
Edelson and his GEODE colleagues are investigating the hypothesis that using GIS to visualize large quantities of data not only provides students with opportunities to develop spatial reasoning abilities but also allows them to use these abilities to learn important science and geography content.
Students have used My World to investigate a wide range of topics, including 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 all of these cases, My World enables students to view and analyze scientific or historical data in the form of dynamic, customizable maps.
Students can also enter data they themselves have collected into My World. By mapping and analyzing that data in My World GIS, they can see spatial patterns that would not otherwise be apparent.
In addition to My World, GEODE has developed several standards-based curricula incorporating geographic information systems. These include a high school science textbook titled "Investigations of Environmental Science: A Case-based Approach to the Study of Environmental Science." Using this textbook and GIS software, high school students take on the role of environmental scientists and investigate real-world environmental problems.
The NRC report also recommends fostering spatial literacy though practices such as linking with standards, innovative teaching methods, teacher training and assessment -- all of which are components of the work of the GEODE Initiative.
Part of the National Academies of Science and Engineering, the NRC advises the federal government on critical issues in science and technology. "Underpinning success in math and science is the capacity to think spatially," its report states.