GIS in the Classroom: A Conversation with Ali Pressel & Kyle Tredinnick

In October 2019, Teacher Advisory Council members Ali Pressel and Kyle Tredinnick hosted a breakout session titled “StoryMaps: Building a GeoHabit” at National Geographic’s Education Summit. ArcGIS StoryMaps is a system that allows users to tell digital stories with text, interactive maps, imagery, and more. The two high school teachers value this skillset and geographic information systems (GIS) in the classroom as they prepare students to see the world beyond maps. 

In honor of GIS Day, a celebration of the technology in the field, Ali and Kyle sat down with the National Geographic Society’s Education staff to talk about their journey with geography. 

Ali and Kyle didn’t intend to teach GIS, but it quickly became the main focus. 

“I actually first started working with GIS when I was involved with a state government program for endangered species in New Jersey,” Ali shared. With a background in environmental sciences, she now works at a career academy school in Florida that allows her to incorporate GIS into every unit of the curriculum across all four years of high school. 

For Kyle, the start of his GIS teaching began when the school he was working for developed a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) academy. “I pushed for including a GIS course, so I had to teach myself GIS,” Kyle recalled. The first year of his course had 25 students, the largest intake at that time. Now teaching 11th and 12th graders in Nebraska, Kyle describes GIS as “magic” among students and a way to really get students seeing a potential career trajectory in the geography space. 

With their continued growth in the field, both educators know geography is still growing to become a standard across classrooms, especially at the elementary level. “A lot of teachers would agree that geography has fallen by the wayside. It’s really unfortunate because geography connects everything that we do both in our classrooms and in our communities,” Ali said. 

The beauty of the subject matter allows collaboration and gives students the chance to apply the knowledge to real-life connections in the world. A suggested activity is to have students put away their phones and then ask questions around this to highlight their dependency on technology including mapping software. This activity allows students to become storytellers and elevate their voice. By empowering a student’s place in the classroom and community, it lends itself to have others feed back into their development. For example, on GIS Day this year, Ali’s class will have a guest chatting with students about redesigns for an Atlanta airport, and the need for businesses in relation to tourism. 

As interested as students can be about a topic, the catalyst starts with a teacher setting the foundation. “The more teachers are comfortable with the subject, the more likely they are to teach it,” Kyle said. “You have to really learn by doing it [and] not be afraid to fail.” 

Ali echoed this sentiment by saying it is important for educators to be willing to try new things and not be intimidated by the technology. Some resources recommended by the duo to get started with geography and GIS include Esri’s GeoInquiries and free K-12 license for training and technology support, and GeoMentors by American Association of Geographers to be paired with someone in the community who works in GIS and can provide support throughout the process. “There are benefits and ways to incorporate technology in a positive way,” Kyle shared.  

Geography is more than maps, more accessible than others may think, and has implications in everyday life. There’s a strong desire among educators such as Ali and Kyle to eliminate misconceptions to show that GIS is “not just cliquey,” but instead a way to get to the center of many conversations. Dive into all that geography has to offer and keep in mind that “it’s important to remember the people and stories behind the maps.” 

Happy Geography Awareness Week and GIS Day! 

Feature image by Leigh Vogel

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