Incorporating GIS into the Geography Curriculum

Rob Manger, Geography teacher at English Martyrs Catholic School, has attended a staff development course on Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to improve his skills in using technology to support learners, and widen the use of technology use across his department. He will be developing a range of teaching resources for use across key stages 3-5, which will be shared openly at the end of project for other geography staff to use.

Having now completed the formal training element of his BSF ICT Innovation Award, Rob shares his progress with us here. Below is a summary of Rob’s report, you can read the full version, including more ideas for using Google Earth, here:

Incorporating GIS into the Geography Curriculum (Word)

Incorporating GIS into the Geography Curriculum (PDF)

You can also read the final project report, and download resources: Getting Started with GIS in the Geography Curriculum (August 2015)

Geography curriculum

Throughout Keystages 3, 4 and 5 it is essential for students to be able to question and understand their place within the world, the human and physical processes that change the world around them at different scales, both spatially and temporally and to be able to analyse interconnections.

One of the aims of the National Curriculum for Geography specifically states that all pupils are competent in the geographical skills needed to:

  • Interpret a range of sources of geographical information, including maps, diagrams, globes, aerial photographs and Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

I have come to believe that GIS is one extremely powerful tool that will help deliver these aims to our students. It is down to individual schools and individual teachers the extent to which they wish to teach their students about GIS. However, I believe it would be foolish not to give our students the opportunity to experience one of the tools that will ensure they experience a high quality geography education that will provide them with the skills necessary for their future.

My Starting Point

I have taken on this project with an extremely basic background knowledge of GIS. About 15 years ago, during my degree I have a vague recollection of sitting in front of some old desktop computers learning about remote sensing and GIS which, as I remember, was to plot some data onto a basemap about glaciers in Svalbard. We had to draw the basemaps ourselves using Coreldraw and then give it a location and somehow plot some data onto the map. Wow, what a long and laborious process that was. I didn’t want to continue with learning about GIS after that.

Since then, Google Earth has provided a ‘map’ for me. I can add placemarks to record a tour. I can identify the course of a river and create a long profile of the river using the elevation tool. To me, that was GIS. There are of course the readymade GIS activities on the Map zone website and I know from attending the Geographical Association’s Annual Conference that there is a package called Aegis with ready to use lessons. But I still didn’t really understand how it worked and whether I could use it in the way that I wanted to teach my students about the issues, processes and places I felt were important.

The Journey

In January I attended a course entitled Google Earth and beyond: free online GIS run by the Geographical Association and lead by the mighty Alan Parkinson (@Geoblogs). This course was the start of my journey. As the title suggests we mainly discussed Google Earth. However, Alan opened with a definition of GIS. GIS is a “digital map, data located on the map and a software application (GIS) that links the two together.” He continued with the fact that for us to be working with true GIS we must be able to query the data we are using.

Now if we are being accurate, this means Google Earth is not a GIS. Firstly, Google Earth is made up of a set of photographs and not a digital map. Secondly, we cannot query the data Google Earth so beautifully displays. This does not mean that Google Earth is not an amazingly useful resource for teaching geography because it is. And as far as I am aware, exam boards will accept students using Google Earth as an example of GIS.

However, having said Google Earth is not GIS it is still software that most students have some familiarity with, our network manager was happy to install it and my colleagues felt confident enough to give it ago.

There are many tutorials on the web that teach about the functions of Google Earth:

Getting to know Google Earth

Alan Parkinson writes a blog called the Google Earth Users Guide

If you want to take your learning further Richard Treves has a Moodle page which can be accessed from his equally informative blog: Google Earth Design

GE Design SShot

How have I used Google Earth so far?

In its most basic, simple form I have used Google Earth as a map, sharing locations of the places we are learning about. Showing the place in relation to the UK and discussing the human and physical geography we can observe.

I’ve used it as a plenary for students to predict whether an area is in danger from earthquakes or volcanoes having completed a lesson about the distribution of tectonic hazards.

As part of an International Day, years 8s looked at the characteristics of Dharavi and used the placemark tool to describe what they saw. In a previous International Day we identified the sustainable characteristics of Haskavo (Leicesters twin town in Bulgaria) and compared these with Leicester. Each time I have used Google Earth students have been engaged (Once they’ve had 5 minutes to find their house that is) and made progress. But I don’t feel I’ve used Google Earth (GE) as productively as I might.

The idea that I think uses GE to its full capacity is the ability to add layers of information to overlay the ‘basemap’. Now this is beginning to sound like GIS! There are many layers available to import into GE, photographs and videos from sites such as Flickr, Panaramio and Youtube. All add to our perception and understanding of a place. It is also possible to add Ordnance Survey maps as a layer, the weather, population density and the location of earthquakes and volcanoes to name but a few.

But this is nothing new. I have since been able to apply more ideas from Alan’s course into my teaching, you can read about our AS Geography trip to Blencathra, and the GIS work that I carried out around the field trip, in my full report in which I have created a virtual field course incorporating the idea of layering information and linking it directly to the possible exam questions found in the skills examination papers.

So Alan’s course was useful! And I have since purchased a couple of books which have given me further ideas on how to implement GIS into our curriculum:

Fieldwork through Enquiry by John Widdowson and Alan Parkinson

GIS Made Easy: Geography Lessons Using GIS by Robert Lang

I have displayed these ideas as a traditional mindmap drawn one evening whilst watching the tele. (I’m sure there are fancy ways of drawing a mindmap on the computer but I’m quite proud of my creativity!). I know there will be more ideas.

Rob GIS Doodle

The next steps

As I’m sure is apparent from my previous ramblings, my mind is in a bit of a disorganised spin about the many possibilities to implement GIS in to our geography curriculum.

I have since attended a course about ArcGISonline which has sent my brain into complete meltdown (in a good way) about the further opportunities GIS offers us as a vehicle for delivering excellent geography to our students.

I have many answers to the questions I posed at the beginning. However, I wish to explore, create and evaluate further before answering them here.

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