Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Computers, K-12 education, and GIS

Recently, I ran across an interesting (but old, 2005) article by one of my favorite bloggers: Atanas Entchev. It was an editorial, in Directions Magazine, called "What Makes a Perfect GIS Job Candidate?". In the article, Entchev asks:

What makes a perfect GIS job candidate? Good education or good training?

...and ultimately concludes

Education and training are complementary, but distinct. Education is important, especially in the long run. But training is necessary, too.

I like Entchev's discussion on this and I also find it to be exceptionally true. GIS is something that takes learning both from the classroom and in the field to really master. I've definitely found this to be the case in my academic and professional life. However, one unfortunate fact remains that without classroom training, it's very unlikely that you will get professional training. In my experience, there really is no chicken-and-egg debate on obtaining computer skills. If you want a GIS (or any computer related job), you need to: 1) go to school for it and then 2) pick up the industry experience after you graduate. The real question is: when should students begin their GIS training?

These days, getting the initial academic training for GIS is relatively easy, provided you have access to a community college/university and a decent computer station. If you don't: then you are in trouble. Which is unfortunate, because GIS training can open doors to thousands of jobs and a multitude of different career pathways. It also is a great way to gain geographical literacy and improve spatial skills, something that young American's are showing an alarming lack of (according to the 2006 Roper survey, half of the 18-24 year olds surveyed couldn't find New York on a map). Studies have also shown that GIS has the potential to "improve problem and enquiry-based learning" and advance critical thinking skills in young children (Tschirner and O'Brien 2006, Hall-Wallace and McAuliffe 2001).

As a GIS specialist, encouraging young (and soon-to-be-working) K-12 students to learn GIS, is an important life goal for me. This might seem strange, given that I myself didn't learn about GIS till my final years of undergrad, and didn't gain mastery of the software till graduate school. However, my lack of early life computer skills and my current awareness of how important GIS is to the workforce, has made me all the more determine to advocate it's full-integration into K-12 public education system. I began this campaign little over a year ago, by holding GIS and geography technology workshops in an inner-city West Oakland high school as part of my work as an Albert Schweitzer Fellow.

During my work at Excel, I noticed a few things about today's K-12 students and their computer skills that I did not expect to notice. For one, I noticed that almost all the students I met had far more access to computers then I ever did at their grade level. Where as I learned typing skills on 10-year old typewriters, all my students learned how to type with word processors. I also noticed that my students were aware of computer 'lingo' in a way I never was at there age. They could easily tell the difference between a Mac and a PC, and were very informed about different internet sites, web browsing, and social networking.

However, for all their advanced computer skills, these 11th and 12th grade students did have some noticeable training gaps. In my earliest work with them, I quickly noticed that many of the students had rudimentary to non-existent geographical skills. Many of them did not know how to read a map, and couldn't tell the difference between a topo line and a rhumb line. We had to go over what a projection, what a datum was, what scale was...and, well, everything.

Looking back, I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised about my students imbalance of skills. In 1998, it was reported that 55% of American's owned a home computer. That number was up to 76% in 2005. Current reports show that more than 90% of students in grades 6-12 use computers regularly during school hours. However, starkly contrasting with the increase of computer skills is the steady decline of basic geographical training in our K-12 system. As early as 1979, researchers have notice that the "geographic knowledge of high school students is inadequate and that enrollment and achievement in geography education are low" (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1979). This decline was particularly noticeable in the years when I was a K-12 student (80's-90's), when researchers found that only 16% of sampled high school students had taken a geography class (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983).

Recent data on the geographic performance of fourth, eighth, and twelth graders (see The Nation's Report Card: Geography 2001) shows a slight trend towards improvement in K-12 geographic training since 1994 (particularly for fourth and eighth graders). But that improvement appears to favor a particular racial and economic demographic. As the report shows, "the average score for students who were eligible for the Free/Reduced-Price School Lunch program was lower than the average for students who were not eligible for the program (i.e. above poverty guidelines)". Furthmore, inner-city kids appear to be at a distinct disadvantage, with "students in rural and urban fringe locations [having] higher average scores than central city students".

My year of work with the Excel students was definitely an eye-opening experience about what public education is currently offering lower-income students on the topics of computer skills and geography. On one hand, all my students were far more computationally advanced then I was at their age (and, thanks to a generous donation from Dell, they had many more on-campus computer resources then I did at their age). However, on the other hand, they were still suffering (as much as I was at their age) from the obvious decline of geographic training in our K-12 system.

I'm not going to make a fool of myself here and declare that everyone of my students wanted or was well-suited to pursue a career in GIS (many were not interested). However, the fact of the matter is we live in a digital world where computer skills are necessary for job placement and for everyday life. Furthermore, in order to have a competitive advantage in the employment market, students need more then just your average IT skills (i.e. typing, web browsing) that were standard K-12 learning fare in the 80's and 90's. In order to have the competitive edge, students today need to have computer skills that enable them to treat computers as analytical tools and not as mere data storage (or facebook-frenzy) devices. Furthermore, in our digital world, where geographical boundaries are being made shorter everyday, it is important to keep striving to improve geographical literacy in our K-12 students. To fail to do so, would only place the US labor and intellectual market further behind it's international competitors.

GIS can accomplish these tasks. Not just for the poor students, but for every student. In an education system where approximately 93% of geography teachers had degrees in education (note: only 28% had a degree in geography), GIS offers a (relatively, when compared to teacher re-training) low-cost and immediate way to jump start a large-scale US geographical curriculum. By combining computer training with geography lessons, teachers have a way to kill "two birds with one stone". Students will learn to use an industry-based software program that goes beyond the usual drill-and-practice educational software. At the same time, students will also increase their spatial-thinking and critical thinking skills, and gain introduction to basic geographical concepts (which notably, research shows that students who used computer tools even to a small or moderate extent had higher geography scores than students who did not use these tools at all).

I'm not assuming that implementation of this will be easy (it won't be....afterall, there is buying the software, making sure you have enough computers, sufficient IT help, etc etc). However, I think introducing a software into an existing K-12 classroom/curriculum structure is way better (and easier) then adding a new class or teacher to the K-12 curriculum. The beauty of GIS is in the vastness of it's applicability. Anyone (not just a geography class) can offer training in it, since so many fields use it.

End of story: GIS is a good idea for solving many of the current problems in the K-12 system. I hope my kids get a chance to learn it there, rather then having to wait to learn it in college (like I did).


  1. Another link about mapping in the news.

  2. Sorry David, link didn't compute...can you post again?