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The days of teasing geographers about colouring in maps are well and truly over. With the advent of GIS geographers are showing the world the power of sophisticated computerised mapping. GIS is rapidly becoming an everyday part of our lives, from tracking transport flows and solving crimes to helping you find services close to your location and for coordinating emergency responses to disasters.
OCR has long been an advocate of the importance of GIS in Geography. The specifications have given scope for teachers to utilise GIS within fieldwork as well as to integrate it within the teaching of topics. The new GCSE and A level specifications make explicit reference to the value of GIS in geography.
While a few years ago GIS was the preserve of specialist professionals, it is now readily and freely accessible for use by teachers in schools. With the advent of online GIS platforms like Esri’s ArcGIS Online it has never been easier to access to ready-made maps with current data as well as to make your own beautiful creations. For example teachers can quickly call up maps with live earthquake or hurricane data to get students to both look at the patterns and also consider how their impacts may vary around the world. It is great to see students’ engagement when they have heard about something like the recent earthquake in Chile and then find it on the map in their lesson. Also getting students to look at their local area using census data sets makes them question the complex geographical patterns which surround them.
For many teachers getting into GIS can be a bit daunting at first. It was only a couple of years ago that I had never used any GIS and I certainly did not know where to start. I quickly decided that Esri’s ArcGIS was the most suitable platform in my opinion for use in schools and had a bit of a play with it. It was quite easy to pick up the basics, and I was amazed by how much freely readily available data there was for me to drop onto maps to use with my students. Over time, and through trial and error, hitting various buttons I learnt how to run some of the stunning map analysis tools, and remember being very proud of creating my first contour map for noise variations around the school. Quite rapidly my confidence with using it grew and I began to build up a large bank of resources for use on wide range of topics.
The key to GIS in my mind is trying to use it reasonably regularly with students as part of topic content rather than a once a year fieldwork exercise, otherwise it is hard to remember how it all works. There is also lots of help out there for those starting out. ESRI have produced some excellent resources to help teachers get started including this recent online book. Jason Sawle at ESRI (the GIS in Education Consultant) provides fantastic support to teachers and schools through his wealth of experience and passion for GIS in Geography. I have produced a series of free online lesson resources designed to introduce secondary school geography students to the key principles of GIS. OCR are keen to promote GIS and its value in geographical education and they offer training to help teachers with Integrating GIS into the Classroom.
I truly believe that GIS lies at the heart of modern geography teaching. It is a core skill for a subject whose main purpose is to understand spatial patterns and interactions. It provides a rich source of data for our students to examine offering genuine opportunities to get students to think critically about complex inter-relationships. It also allows a certain freedom for students to explore information with some independence and importantly to learn by accident as they discover new things in the world around them, sometimes beyond the planned focus of the lesson.
Last year, as part of GIS Day 2014, I worked in collaboration with EsriUK to develop a World Record GIS Event. In this event students from all around the world where asked to add their ratings for the quality of life in their neighbourhood to a shared online map using ArcGIS online. In total almost 12,000 students took part in the event, setting a new Esri UK World Record. The outcomes of this project can be accessed through the 2015 event web site. One of the interesting things this large data set provided was the challenge of interpreting such big and complex field data. This gets students thinking about the role of GIS in spatial analysis. To help students examine this data set I produced this web app where you can filter and graph selected data points, which can also be accessed through the 2015 web site.
Following this event I have been working on the next free global mapping activity for all Geographers for the week surrounding GIS Day in November 2015. This event is called Ashcloud Apocalypse. Watch the video promoting this event. It is only a few years ago when you might remember the disruption caused by the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption in Iceland. Well what could be the consequences in our highly interconnected globalised world of a larger apocalyptic level eruption of a mega volcano? It has happened before and will happen again, one day! So are we ready for the climatic consequences, the collapse of global food production and disruption to trade routes?
Students will examine a series of map layers within a freely available online web app to determine the level of risk in their home area should a mega eruption occur. You can find out more and get your organisation involved at the event web site. Organisations like Map Action demonstrate the importance of geographical skills and GIS in managing crisis events. This event is designed to get your students realising the relevance of geography. Get your students to consider what factors would affect which areas and people would suffer most after a mega eruption and how you could use GIS analysis to identify these places. For example areas very close to a mega volcano would be more directly affected than those places further away. Additionally less wealthy areas would struggle to cope more than areas with greater financial resources. Students will look at 9 different factors as part of this event and ultimately create the most detailed global risk map for an Ashcloud Apocalypse event.
GIS has changed a lot over the last few years and it is has become an excellent way to engage our students with interesting interactive resources and helps to build spatial literacy skills. There is lots of help out there for teachers who want to get started and why not join the 18,000+ others who have signed up for the Ashcloud Apocalypse event this year for some explosive geography fun.
This article was written by Raphael Heath, Head of Geography at the Royal High School Bath. Raphael was presented with the Royal Geographical Society Ordnance Survey Award for Excellence in Secondary Education in 2015. He also won the Esri UK Best Community Project Award for the 2014 GIS Day World Record Event. He is a GDST Lead Subject Champion promoting collaboration in Geography across a network of 26 schools around the UK. He is one of Esri UK's Centre of Excellence in GIS Education. He is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He has presented at conferences, published articles and run courses in various aspects of Geography teaching.