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Vol. 7, No. 6: February 15, 2001

Integrating Geographic Information Systems (GIS) into Wisconsin Public Schools

by Jim Brey, Associate Professor of Geography/Geology, UW-Fox Valley, and
Diane Pillard, Director of Continuing Education and Extended Services, UW Colleges

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a new technological tool that is rapidly gaining importance. It offers a unique capability to bring together a wide variety of data types for detailed spatial analysis. It is ideal for accomplishing multidisciplinary studies, and because its output is typically graphical (in the form of maps), it readily provides sophisticated information about complex relationships that exist in our world.

Unfortunately, at present, few teacher education and certification programs include GIS as part of their curricula. Therefore, there have been few opportunities for classroom teachers to acquire an understanding of GIS, its uses, and how to integrate it into an existing, standards-based curriculum. Furthermore, the cost of software and data has limited its adoption even where expertise is available.

The UW System, however, recently acquired GIS software for each of its campuses, making UW campuses across Wisconsin the logical place to look for summer classes and professional development workshops aimed at meeting the needs of K-12 districts. A collaborative project sponsored by the UW Colleges, UW-Stevens Point, and several CESAs and local school districts offered GIS training to a cadre of K-12 teachers across Wisconsin last summer. The training was funded by a Professional Development in Instructional Technology for Teachers grant under the UW System's 2000-2001 PK-16 Initiative. ArcView software bundles valued at $495 each were donated by Environmental Systems Research Institute for each K-12 participant for use at home and at school.

Teachers work on individualized projects using GIS software.
K-12 teachers develop individualized classroom projects during GIS training.

GIS workshops were held at four UW Colleges campuses (Rock, Baraboo, Barron and Fox Valley), providing K-12 participants with six days of hands-on training in GIS, a solid knowledge base on which to build curricula that incorporate GIS. Participating teachers reconvened for three Saturday assessment sessions during October, November, and December to solve problems related to their specific projects and to build upon what they had learned during the workshops. Assessment focused on how successful GIS can be as a learning tool, how it can be introduced in the K-12 classroom, and specific obstacles.

"In my opinion, by far the most valuable aspect of this experience has been to open my eyes to the potential of GIS as a tool," stated one of the participating teachers. "I love having the wide variety of data that comes with the ArcView bundle. This gives me the ability to get the information that I need, then manipulate and project it in the most meaningful manner." Overall, evaluation results showed that all of the participants felt the collaboration between UW faculty/staff and K-12 teachers was beneficial in developing flexible GIS curricula for use in Wisconsin social studies and science courses. In fact, by the end of these professional development workshops, the majority of participants were able to complete project-based GIS exercises for use in their classrooms with the assistance of their peer K-12 teachers and supporting UW faculty/staff.

The usefulness of GIS in teaching is vast. While one participant complained of limited computer access in his classroom which made extensive use of GIS impossible at this time, he noted that his best use thus far has been in assisting a seventh grade student who has multiple sclerosis. The student uses the software to create political maps of regions the class is studying, enhancing learning for the disabled student. Others have actually integrated the introductory training they received into their curricula through presentations or classroom projects.

"GIS is a great tool to take us from pushpin/paper maps to analyzing data using the computer," noted one participant. "I can see a broad range of opportunities to use GIS in grades 6-12 curriculum. I’ve also found ways to use GIS in other aspects of my job (website, data evaluation, etc.)."

According to UW-Fox Valley geography/geology professor Jim Brey, the winning strategy for improving the quality of today’s students is to assist teachers in creating better learning environments. "Teachers today are expected to teach tomorrow’s knowledge with yesterday’s tools. They are expected to do more with less time. If, by preparing teachers to use cutting edge technology to teach modern standards-based science, we are improving science literacy in this country," he added, "then this project is a step in the right direction."

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