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Virginia Journal of Education

More than Capitals, Rivers, and Climate Maps

How GIS is making geography more meaningful for both students and teachers.


By Chris Bunin

“I love maps!” is a common response when I tell people I teach geography and geospatial technologies. “Yes! We’ve got this,” my friends exclaim when they learn trivia night’s final subject is geography—only to be disappointed when our team is unable to identify the country home to the mysterious Nazca lines (the answer is Peru, for all of you playing at home).
When most us think of K-12 geography, we probably think of memorizing capitals and rivers, coloring and labeling climate maps, and taking map quizzes. It may surprise you to know that my students use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to create digitized spatial layers, x,y data based on coordinate systems, and to make dynamic maps to analyze and answer complex questions. This isn’t just happening in GIS classes: My students regularly plot and analyze data, compare differences between data layers, and learn the basics of GIScience in humanities classes, too.

What is GIS and why does it matter?
GIS is computer software that can combine layers of information about place and space. The name sounds complex, but at its heart GIS has three pieces: a map, tables of information (think spreadsheets), and a way to make the map and tables interact to create visualizations, show patterns, and conduct geographic analysis.

Geospatial technologies are in use everywhere. People use them to search for the cheapest gas stations based on zip code; meteorologists use them to prepare and deliver forecasts; Google Maps and other traffic apps use them to evaluate traffic patterns and provide real-time driving directions. 

From cumbersome to awesome!
My personal shift to using GIS in my social studies classrooms began in 2005 when I joined the Project GRASP (Geospatial Related Activities for Student Progress) professional development course at James Madison University (JMU). In that class, I was exposed for the first time to the power of GIS and its possibilities for teachers and students. Though I was jazzed about the technology’s potential, I found myself afterward essentially on an instructional island when it came to finding colleagues ready to take the GIS plunge.
Back then, GIS was a hard sell to teachers. The software was cumbersome, difficult to install, carried a steep learning curve, and lesson plans and data sets were limited. Today, the access and practicality of using GIS in the classroom is at an all-time high. Much of Virginia’s accessibility is the ripple effect of work done by JMU, the Virginia Geographic Alliance, and Esri, the world’s leading GIS software company. JMU, under the direction of Dr. Bob Kolvoord, dean of the College of Integrated Science and Engineering, held National Summits on Geospatial Technologies in K-12 Education from 2008-2011. There, teachers and education and industry leaders met to identify resources needed to make serious inroads into Virginia’s classrooms. At the same time, Esri made GIS software more accessible to schools. Today, the company provides free cloud-based and desktop GIS technologies to any school in the U.S. As a result, Virginia has become a leader in classroom GIS use.

A culminating experience for high school students
As part of its outreach to our high schools, JMU launched a program called Geospatial Semester (GSS) in 2005, which seeks to offer high school juniors and seniors a culminating experience steeped in authentic engagement, workforce preparedness, and problem-based learning. 

Today, students from 25 high schools participate in the program, earning dual-enrollment credit. They learn a cutting-edge technology that leaves them with valuable workplace skills, and also taught spatial thinking skills that are key to STEM careers and not taught elsewhere in the high school curriculum. They study how GIS is applied in emergency management, environmental science, public policy, and community and business analytics. At the end of the course, students complete capstone projects that are assessed JMU professors. Recent project topics have included:

● An Analysis of the Change in the Amount of Ground-Level Ozone for the Metropolitan Region from 2013-2016—Washington-Lee High School, Arlington

● Proposal for Realignment and Placement of Heavy Rescues in Loudoun County, Virginia—Briar Woods High School, Ashburn

● Setting Up a Volleyball Defense—Shenandoah Valley Governor’s School

● An Interactive Guide to Nelson County Hiking Trails-Nelson County High School

● An Analysis of EMS Calls within Albemarle County—Albemarle High School

● Refugee Camp Site Selection in Jordan—South Lakes High School, Reston

● Rerouting the Iditarod—Dominion High School, Sterling

These and other projects can be seen at

“When I began using GIS I viewed it as a tool to make pictures,” says Albemarle High School student Claire King. “As I gained more experience, its functionality seemed to multiply. I began to view it as an investigative tool to explore, visualize, and model data rather than simply as an image creator. Understanding how to use GIS has made me more curious about the world around me. Having the ability to satisfy my curiosities through GIS has been surprisingly rewarding. Knowing that I can answer my own inquiries and represent my findings in a way that is presentable to others is empowering. Learning to use GIS in school brought me the opportunity to have an internship with the University of Virginia which allowed me to have my work published as a junior in high school.”

She’s not alone: Many students have parlayed the GSS into an internship or summer work experience,” says Kolvoord, who helps supervise the GSS program. “It’s also introduced geography as a potential area of study for many students.  In fact, JMU geography enrollments are at an all-time high, in part due to a steady flow of students from the GSS.”

Interdisciplinary GIS: the iSTEM framework
Albemarle middle school teacher Julie Stavitski learned about the power of geospatial technologies through the iSTEM Teacher Scholars Program. “Ten minutes of seeing GIS in action in my classroom was enough to convince me of the power of this technology,” she says. “I was surprised at how quickly I became comfortable with it. In one training session, Kathryn Keranen, a GSS co-founder, sensed our hesitance and shared a perspective that gave me permission to explore using GIS in my classroom: the scale of our first activity doesn’t matter as long as we just did something to get the kids using the technology.”

The iSTEM Teacher Scholars program, founded in 2014, focuses on workforce preparedness and GIS as an interdisciplinary bridge. Designed to be more than a hypothetical exercise, it helps classroom teachers develop practical and transferrable approaches to GIS classroom use. 
GIS offers a way to meet the difficult challenge of incorporating STEM skills and strategies into the humanities. In most academic situations, core science and social science subjects are taught in isolation, which limits opportunities for teachers and students to engage in integrated STEM learning. GIS can be a way to combat a general lack of interest in STEM fields amongst students, if we can develop ways to inspire and extend these skills, tools, and concepts beyond the silos of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  
One excellent way to do this is #YouCanMapThat!, a flexible curriculum that contains best-practice GIS activities for multiple grade levels and disciplines. It’s been published in iBook format, is free to the public, and available for download at Some examples of the iSTEM lessons in the curriculum include Exploring the Fate of the Titanic, Mapping the First Five Presidents, and Querying the Reach of Jim Crow.
“Participating in the iSTEM Teacher Scholars Program brought into focus the notion that teachers teach students and not content,” says Andy Dojack, a teacher at William Monroe High School in Greene County. “By providing students with skills in GIS, I have been able to give them the type of independent learning environment that fuels curiosity and growth. Students use the software to explore and analyze all sorts of topics that transcend disciplines. This provides a deeper understanding of subject matter when compared to teaching with traditional resources. Put simply, the iSTEM method empowers students through the use of 21st-century technology.”

Through funding partnerships with Esri, the Virginia Geographic Alliance, Battelle, The National Council for the Social Studies, and the Library of Congress’ Teaching with Primary Sources Eastern Region, the #YouCanMapThat! curriculum has been used to train over 250 teachers how to use GIS and iSTEM GIS activities in their classrooms.  It has also created an online professional learning community so that once teachers have completed their training they don’t find themselves in GIS isolation with limited support.

“The iSTEM Teachers Scholars Program has been instrumental in showing teachers the value of including GIS in their teaching,” says Dojack. “Most teachers are willing to try new methods, but many are hindered by a limited amount of professional development time. This program provides a convenient, straightforward set of lessons and activities.”

How to get started using GIS in your classroom

So, now the question for many of you is, “How do I get started?” Here are a few ways you can immediately begin integrating GIS into your teaching practices:

1. Download the #YouCanMapThat! iSTEM iBook at to introduce yourself to GIS and gain access to best practices.

2. Check out the Geospatial Semester at

3. Register your school for a free Esri ArcGIS Online (AGO) Organizational Account. There is no catch. Register at ESRI’s website and gain access to a lot of GIS bells and whistles, including an organizational account that allows you to enroll and manage 500 student accounts; the ability to create customized classroom or student maps; and access to advanced functions of ArcGIS Online, such as density analysis, proximity analysis, and interpolation. With these accounts you can have students become digital historians who research, design, and create their own story maps. It is a great option for your tech-savvy students. You can register for an account at

4. Explore and use Esri’s GeoInquiries ( and click on Gallery). They’re 15-minute activities, each with a teacher’s guide with questions and answers and a professionally designed Web GIS map. No installation, fees, or logins are necessary. The more than 100 activities include ones specific to earth science, English/language Arts, mathematics, human geography, U.S. history and world history.

5. Go to Esri’s Story Map Gallery ( and click on Gallery) and browse the ready-made interactive maps.

6. Attend a workshop on using GIS in the classroom. There are many options available. For example, the Virginia Geographic Alliance has a five-week online asynchronous course, “#YouCanMapThat!”, covering beginner and intermediate skills and ways to seamlessly integrate GIS into the K-12 classroom. If you’re interested in taking the course, fill out the online form at

Bunin, a member of the Albemarle Education Association, teaches A.P. human geography, world history, and geospatial technologies at Albemarle High School, is an assistant professor of geography at Piedmont Virginia Community College, and the Geospatial Technologies chair for the Virginia Geographic Alliance. He was named the 2016 Secondary Social Studies Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies, and received the 2017 Brunn Creativity Award for the Outstanding Teaching of Geography from the National Council for Geographic Education. You can follow him @ahsgeo.



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