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Monday, January 23, 2012

Can you Compare a GIS to the Periodic Table?

Last week Joseph Kerski, @josephkerski, tweeted:
For a geography, environmental, or earth science teacher not to teach with GIS is like a chemistry teacher not using the periodic table.
This idea seems to track back to 2009, when he wrote:
One might argue that for a geography educator not to use maps is like a chemistry teacher not using the periodic table.
I am not comfortable with the first, "newer" iteration since I do not feel GIS and the periodic table are parallel. One is interactive, the other passive. I think the older version, with map in place of GIS, is a particularly apt simile.

I can't imagine a chemistry teacher who does not use the periodic table. The HUGE periodic table was the focal point of Mr. Mark's classroom. He was my 10th grade honors chem and 12th grade AP chem teacher. The first day of tenth grade he let us know that we'd have quizzes every few days in the first two weeks on the elements (name, atomic number and symbol). Then he handed each of us a blue bordered "Go Navy" cardstock periodic table, pre-punched with three holes to fit in our binders. I kept that periodic table until I finished college with a chemistry degree.

I didn't know it then, but learned later, when I studied geography in college, that the periodic table is a map. (It's a representation of structure. A structure is a set of elements and relationships between them. That's so very correct to say the periodic table is a map.) Between grade 10 and college graduation I learned that the periodic table was my grounding, "my basemap" to making sense of the properties of elements and compounds. I suppose that's why I kept that "Go Navy" one for so long.

As much as I love the idea of GIS appearing in all kinds of courses including environmental and earth science and new interactive chemistry tools appearing in all kinds of chemistry and related courses, let's not put the cart before the horse. GIS and all its analytics and cartographic tools are not valuable unless students and teachers know how to interpret the maps it creates. (What is where? Why? So what?) Similarly, an interactive periodic table (there are many of them now, online and for your favorite desktop and mobile platform!) does demand some understanding of the static version. (How are elements in the same row alike? How about the same column? What do those numbers mean?)

What I'm suggesting is that interactive tools like these demand some measure of literacy, spatial or chemical, for them to be valuable. If GIS or interactive chem tools are a more appealing way to introduce these ideas, that's fine. But, these basics must be instilled too, perhaps at the same time, and maybe, just maybe, before the interactive tools are introduced, to enable learning.

Tech in the classroom is definitely appealing (and big business!). But if students do not have the basic literacy it can be no better than static versions. I'm hopeful geographers are selling geographic literacy to environmental and earth sciences teachers along with GIS.