Developing Spatial Awareness: NCST Introduces K-12 Students to GIS

From mapping voter demographics across the country to surveying global deforestation, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) continue to expand in usage, ranging from daily functions like GPS and Google Maps to professional use in the fields of environmental science, urban planning, social advocacy, and supply chain management. As demand for GIS and other geospatial skills increases, so does the value of introducing students to them before college, as students gain the foundational skills and experience needed to apply their knowledge across a variety of disciplines. Recognizing GIS as a key digital skill, a research team based at California State University, Long Beach’s (CSULB) Center for International Trade and Transportation (CITT) developed a pilot project for the National Center for Sustainable Freight (NCST). The pilot project is based on the white paper, “Building a GIS Workshop for High School Students,” which emphasized the need to integrate GIS into K-12 education. Not only can GIS education benefit students in gaining greater spatial awareness, but it will also help students better communicate key ideas about complex issues including those related to transportation.

To kick off the project, CITT’s Research and GIS Coordinator Ben Olson and Research Assistants Angelina Carballo, Adam Doyle, and Meghan Orr developed a curriculum plan for a lesson to be taught in high schools affiliated with NCST member universities including CSULB, UC Riverside, UC Davis, and the University of Vermont., Participating high schools include Cabrillo High School in Long Beach, California; North High School in Riverside, California; and Laguna Creek High School in Elk Grove, California in addition to the University of Vermont (UVM) Extension program. “It’s great to have a variety of high school settings in which to pilot the curriculum that was developed by a team of GIS experts, experienced education professionals, and recent high school students, Olson said.

In the high school workshops, the team initiated the session with a brief presentation introducing students to the basics of GIS technology, its uses across different fields, types of GIS data, file types, and several examples of applied GIS. Students then formed groups and selected a research topic from three prepared StoryMap activities based on sustainable transportation: the availability of EV (Electric Vehicle) charging stations, the accessibility of bike routes within students’ communities, and the impact of local Superfund sites. A StoryMap is a visual, multimedia presentation format that allows users to tie maps to videos, images, and text that convey a coherent narrative. Each group had the opportunity to present their StoryMaps to their classmates and receive feedback from both their instructors and other students.

After the first workshop, students provided feedback about their experiences as part of the pilot program. One student highlighted how “this project allowed [participating students] to apply creativity and innovation to [their work], along with simply making [them] more knowledgeable.” Several students also indicated how they could use GIS in future classes or in their careers. For instance, one student wrote how she could utilize GIS software in her AP U.S. History class to map out historical war sites, while another student expressed that he would be able to use GIS for military data collection and interpretation after becoming a seaman. Another student pointed out how GIS could even be used for the FIA World Rally Championship, a motorsport racing competition, to help determine track times through a variety of terrains like snow, forest, and road escapes. An instructor in the Green Energy Technology Academy at Laguna Creek High School emphasized that “by explaining the power (and existence) of StoryMaps, the GIS workshop has opened up many different, powerful options for data representation, case studies, and student presentations.”

This article was originally featured in the University of Southern California and California State University, Long Beach's METRANS Transportation Center's newsletter.

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