MIY (Map it Yourself) with GIS

Adam J. Schwartz is My
Wonderful World’s public engagement coordinator for New York City. He teaches Geographic
Information Systems and Global History at the Academy of Urban Planning in Brooklyn, New York, and is an historical tour guide for the Center for the Urban Environment.


We live in an age of maps.
According to author and cartographer Dennis Wood, over 99.9% of all maps ever
created were created during the last 100 years. They surround us in our daily
activities: in newspapers, on weather reports, and throughout our day. With
tools like Google
 and the National Geographic Map Machine  they
are available at the merest click. We are all map consumers, including our

Having a map at your
fingertips is an everyday luxury, but the fact is that someone has got to make
all those maps. That someone could be your students, or even you! Making your
own maps is a great option for teachers who want to create their own materials.
And for students it can be a hook for getting involved in geography and
geographic careers. Many of our students are already interested in technology. So
by showing them how they can apply that to making a map, you open up a whole
new potential career, in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

So what’s GIS? GIS technology
is the nuts and bolts behind almost every map we use, and is vital for many of
the services we use everyday, both public (power and water systems) and private
.GIS is, at its simplest level, software that combines location and information
in a simple visual format.  And during the last few years, it’s
become easier to access than ever before.

More importantly, Geospatial
Technology, of which GIS is a subset, is one of the fastest growing
sectors of the technology industry
. If a student chooses GIS, the chances
are great that there will be a job waiting for them after college, or even

A tool for teachers and

Vocational education is not
what brings most teachers to GIS. And it doesn’t take any special training for
you to get started using it in your classroom.  I’m certainly no mastermind at GIS, I’m just a
teacher who loves maps, and making them! That’s what led me to take a short
teacher training course with Carol Gersmehl of New  York’s Regents Center for Geographic Learning. Beyond
that, most of what I’ve learned is from the same tutorials my students use. At
the Academy of Urban  Planning, I’m lucky to co-teach
with an experienced geographer, Josh Lapidus, but most of what I have learned
is on the job.

The most important lesson
I’ve taken out of making maps is that while it may be the “long way round”–as
compared to using published maps–you can get much more out of the journey.

As a teacher, GIS mapping can
be the simplest way to get just the right map. Yes, you can Google for hours
for just the right map for that special activity. Or, with a little practice,
you can make it yourself.  And whether
you give your lessons with an overhead, a projector, or a SMARTboard, the
multiple layers of a GIS map enable you to better explain any spatial

For our students, we all want
to make our activities more engaging. And most educators would agree that
students remember more of what they do
than what they read, see, or hear. And they are more interested, too.

Consequently, a student
making his or her own map can build new levels of understanding as they see how
borders change, and how topography, climate, and demographics interact to
explain historic or scientific processes. It’s a constructivist approach to
geography, with the students doing the constructing.

And best of all, when they
are finished with a GIS map, a student has the pride of printing it! These polished
artifacts not only celebrate what’s been learned, they look great on a wall, or
even better, in a portfolio. This year at my school, the Academy of Urban Planning, many of our students are submitting portfolios for colleges focusing on arts,
architecture, and design. And in each of those portfolios is a map they made
with me.

We don’t expect many of our
students to come out of our program as cartographers, but they all come out
with a greater mastery of real world computer skills, better literacy skills
(from all those tutorials!), and a more insightful understanding of the world
around them. I am lucky enough to teach a yearlong dedicated GIS class, but
everything we do is taught in connection with Science (Urban Ecology), AP Human
Geography, and US History. Along the way, our students also develop skills in
technology and geography.

Here’s how it works for us: After
starting with Google Maps and Google Earth, my students worked up to AEJEE, a
very basic GIS program (more on that below). They are currently following AEJEE
tutorials, in preparation for building their own mapping projects. The
published tutorials have dealt with settlement patterns in US history and the US Census. We
have also written our own tutorials on the 2008 election.

As for projects, we start
those in the spring. In past years, we have focused on environmental justice
and local history. This spring, we will be combining both themes by making maps
for a local environmental group that is working to clean up NYC’s dirtiest body
of water, Newtown Creek.

Of course, not everyone can dedicate the
time we do to mapping with GIS technology. But there’s a new place for
it in your classroom. It’s just a matter of getting started!

Continue reading “MIY (Map it Yourself) with GIS”

Celebrate Geo-Technologies on GIS Day!



MAPS MAPS MAPS! Geographers love maps!

While much of a geographer’s life is spent arguing
that geography is more than maps, we
have to admit, they’re pretty cool.  In
their basic essence, maps help us visualize and navigate through space, and like
music or numbers, simple maps can be interpreted universally.  This is because the age-old questions of,
“where are we?” and “how do we get there” stem from our primal instincts to
find food, and have evolved into our need to locate just about everything else.

Today we celebrate maps and their transformation into
the advanced geo-technologies we use today.
Not only do we rely on Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to tell us where
we are, we also turn to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to tell us the
“who, what, and when” behind the “where.” GIS infuses non-spatial information
(like demographics, commercial trends, political affiliations, health
epidemics) into maps.  This
“geo-referencing” of non-spatial information can then be analyzed, thereby
generating endless possibilities for the creation of new maps.  It’s quite appropriate that today is GIS Day, an annual celebration of geospatial
technologies.  We’ll be paying homage to
geospatial technologies today with ESRI, the country’s
leader in GIS software, and with a few others listed below!

Check out this great link
to brush up on your knowledge of the history of maps, and then read this recent
Opinion article in the New York Times about, “What
Maps Can Do.”
  See how maps can be
manipulated and changed by checking out this
that shows the severity of different cultural, economic, and social
issues by resizing countries.  You can
also see how Google is using GIS technology to track different flu trends by
mapping your Google searches for flu

Continue reading “Celebrate Geo-Technologies on GIS Day!”

GIS Day Q & A with Joseph Kerski


If you’ve ever had the
pleasure of meeting Joseph Kerski, Education Manager for ESRI, at a conference
or, better yet, in a hands-on classroom setting, you know that he is as dynamic,
passionate, and charming as he is adept at what he does.  We were thrilled when Joseph agreed to take a
moment out of his recent trip exploring GIS education in Taiwan to answer some of our questions
about geospatial technology and his work with ESRI.

Please tell us a bit
about what you do as Education Manager for ESRI.
What do you like best about your job?

As Education Manager, I am part of a team that focuses on
expanding the geographic perspective and spatial analysis through the use of
GIS technology and methods at all levels of education, both formal and
informal. I write GIS-based curriculum for a variety of disciplines and levels,
seek and support partnerships with organizations to advance GIS in education, conduct
online, face-to-face, and hands-on workshops and courses, provide technical and
pedagogical support for educators working with geospatial technology, and
conduct research in the effectiveness and implementation of GIS in
education.  What I like best about it all
is the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of thousands of
people annually, around the world.  Another
wonderful part of my job is the talented and dedicated people on our ESRI
Education Team that I serve with, and the fact that ESRI is so supportive of education.

How did you get to
your current position? I notice that you hold a PhD degree–is this in
geography? Education? Another related field?

After serving for 4 years as Geographer at the US Census
Bureau, 17 years as Geographer at the USGS, and as adjunct instructor at
several universities, the fine folks at ESRI convinced me that to join their
team would allow me to have a greater potential impact on society, as well as
allow for increased opportunity for personal and professional growth.  As I have 3 degrees–all in Geography, I guess
you would say I have a one track mind!
Actually, one could say that all geographers have a multi-track mind,

What trends have you
seen in the use of geospatial technology in the classroom in the last five
years? Ten years? What do you think classroom trends will look like into the

In the past 20 years, geospatial technologies have been
affected by six trends that directly impact the classroom.  First, the software moved from something confined
largely to a mini- or mainframe computer to something that could be effectively
run on any computer.  Second, the software moved from a prompt requesting
user input to a series of graphical user interfaces and wizards that guide the
user through processes, and thus GIS software has become much more visual as
well as more user-friendly.  Indeed, some
GIS work can be done entirely with web-GIS portals on the Internet.  Third, because of the Internet, educators
using geotechnologies easily share what they are doing with others, access
spatial data sets without the need to transfer them via tapes, disks, and other
media, and collaborate with others to learn about the Earth and its people.  Fourth, geospatial technologies have gone mobile–on
your PDA, on your cell phone, in your car, and thus is becoming familiar to the
general public.  Fifth, the expansion of
GIS into more fields more rapidly than workers could be trained brought a focus
by the US Department of Labor on geotechnology education and subsequent funding
by NSF and others.  Sixth, a community of
educators who are passionate about teaching with GIS and teaching about GIS has
become a growing international community.
Each of these trends has hastened the use of GIS at all levels of education,
both formal and informal.  Because I see
GIS as “applied geography,” I believe that these trends have increased the
breadth and depth of geography being used in everyday decisions.  However, one only needs to look at the
deforestation and urban sprawl that continues on a daily basis to realize that
we still have a long way to go.  Still, I
have great hope for the future.

Can you tell us a
little about the educational value to students of creating maps, and how this
compares to the practice of interpreting maps?

I believe that the primary value of creating and
interpreting maps is to foster the geographic perspective.  Geography is not simply a body of content
knowledge, but provides a way of looking at the world.  I would argue that with the explosion of
mash-ups, GIS, and other tools that generate as many maps each day as we used
to produce in a decade, it is more important to understand how to interpret
maps than to create them.  We must
encourage students to become critical consumers of all information, including
maps, asking questions such as:  Who
created this map?  For what purpose was
it created?  What content is the map
showing, and what content is it leaving out?
What errors are inherent in the map?
What spatial relationship is the map showing?  Nevertheless, creating maps is also valuable,
because it helps students understand the value judgments inherent in the
process.  Furthermore, now more than
ever, we need people who know how to create maps and spatial databases to help
us grapple with the complex issues we face in societies around the world.

Should non-geography
teachers of subjects like science, history, mathematics, or language arts care
about maps?

I will put it bluntly–without the geographic perspective,
and the ability to use and apply this perspective using geotechnologies–we are
going to have a rough time in the 21st Century, and so will the
Earth on which we depend.  A ‘geographic
perspective’ informs just about every other discipline.  When epidemiologists study the spread of
diseases, scientists study climate change, or businesspersons determine where
to locate a new retail establishment, they use spatial thinking and analysis.
In each case, GIS provides the critical tools and geography provides the critical
framework for studying these issues and for solving very real problems on a
daily basis. Geography is not simply a ‘nice to have’ subject for an already
crowded educational curriculum. It underpins the critical thinking skills,
technology skills, citizenship skills, and life skills that in turn underpin
all other disciplines.  Geography is
essential for grappling with the essential issues of the twenty-first century.
If we continue to ignore geography education, we do so at our own peril.

People have always been fascinated with investigating the
Earth. For centuries, maps have stirred imaginations and inspired explorations
of the unknown.  Today, geography is more
relevant than ever before as issues of climate change, cultural diversity,
economic globalization, urban sprawl, biodiversity loss, sustainable
agriculture, water quality and quantity, crime, energy, tourism, politics, and
natural hazards grow in importance on a global scale and affect our everyday
lives. To grapple with these issues requires a populace that has a firm
foundation in geography, a populace that not only can see the ‘big picture’ but
one that understands how different patterns and trends are related from a
global scale down to the local community.

Continue reading “GIS Day Q & A with Joseph Kerski”

Happy GIS Day!

Subscribe to this blog’s feed Today is National GIS Day! To celebrate, we’re talking GIS (Geographic Information System) with Charlie Fitzpatrick, K-12 Education Manager for ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute).   Hopefully, the “Ultimate Asia Challenge” and Land of Natural Wonders” activities have you off to an exciting start on this week-long tour of Asia.  If you’re new to KML technology, you’re likely as smitten … Continue reading Happy GIS Day!

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Online Mapping

Today is GIS Day! Geography is more than just maps—it’s about understanding our world and the innumerable factors that have created place over time. However, maps are one of the most essential tools that geographers use to understand the constant changes of our planet and its inhabitants. An important modernization of mapping has been the development of geographic information systems (GIS): computer systems and associated … Continue reading Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Online Mapping