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Monday, February 22, 2016

"GIS Gang" Leader Shares Best Practices

In September 2015 Wendy Lemke, a sixth grade teacher at Ann Arbor's St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School, launched a before school club, the GIS Gang. I shared an edited version of her blogs posts about the club's meetings last week.

This Q & A focuses on the lessons learned and offers advice that other educators working with GIS in K-12 students may find valuable. Thanks for taking the time to share Wendy!

1) If you were giving advice to other schools, would you suggest GIS be used in class or in in extra-curricular club? Why?
In my experience, GIS in education consists of two parts: data analysis and map creation. So, there is a place for GIS in both arenas.

I believe that analyzing map data is an excellent and integral part of teaching science and social studies. In addition, simple map building (pinning locations with information and images) can be used in the same way that PowerPoints are used in class. . . a creative way for students to present information. A middle school classroom is a great venue for the Explorer map analysis and map creation lessons.
However, it takes a lot of time to develop GIS skills beyond "the basics." And that kind of time, for both students and teachers, is not available in the regular classroom (unless of course, there is an elective course dedicated to GIS). The more complex lessons seem to be appreciated by smart technophiles! An extra-curricular club was perfect for moving at a more advanced level and faster pace in the middle school.
2) Share how you moved from giving guidance orally in the early meetings to having the students follow scripted lessons in the later ones. What are the keys to making both methods as successful as possible?
For the most part, I introduced something new each week; a loose combination of independent exploration and oral teaching/guidance worked well. Once we started the Investigator lessons, however, I was forced to make a sudden shift in teaching style because each student worked at a different pace and had different reading abilities. I had one student who would be half-way through a map while another student (with learning difficulties) was still logging in. The more capable kids were starting to get bored, and who wants a boring club?! Therefore, it was not a gradual move from oral guidance to scripted lessons; I simply decided to switch. After that, students would occasionally need some clarification on directions; but for the most part, the Esri instructions were excellent guides!
The keys to success for teaching Explorer & Investigator lessons with only* oral guidance are:
  • Run off a paper copy of the lesson for yourself in advance; take notes on it as  you prepare. 
  • Become very familiar with the lesson ahead of time! 
  • Have your notated hard copy of the lesson available as you teach. 
  • Display exactly what to do on a large screen as the students complete each task at their own computers. 
  • Don't move to the next step until all the students are caught up. 
  • Invite faster-working students to assist those who need more time. 
  • Be excited about the lesson, no matter how detailed each step is! (Try saying things like, "Hey, guys - imagine . . . you're doing exactly what GIS professionals do!")
*Not all lessons require direct teaching. Many lessons work extremely well with independent exploration. However, when you are using direct instruction, the above suggestions should be helpful.
The keys to success when using scripted Investigator lessons are:
  • Become very familiar with the lesson ahead of time!
    • There is no need for a formal anticipatory setup. Simply announce the lesson, tell students where to find it, and let the students go! Do not stop to have students check-in periodically with you. They will come to you with questions as needed. Use your time to walk around and be amazed by what the kids can do!
    • Allow kids to help each other before you step in to "solve" the problem.
    • Have something for kids to do who finish early. (Playing computer games is not a good option, as it makes the kids still working feel envious.)
    3) What key skills/interests did these students have that made them successful? What, if any, tech skills did the students not have that they needed?
    Because of their frequent connections with technology, today's students typically have all the computer skills they need to begin GIS. The more advanced skills will be easily acquired with the user-friendly Esri lessons. Of course, all my club students were computer "geeks," which meant they anticipated, not shied away from, experimenting with ArcGIS Online. Even when I used some of the intro lessons with my entire sixth grade before I started the club, there wasn't a single student who was deficient in basic computer skills. Perhaps it's because I teach in a university town; or perhaps it's just the way things are in our computer/smart phone/tablet/iPod world!
    4) What three tips/pieces of advice would you give to other teachers looking to introduce GIS to middle schoolers?
    Do the lessons ahead of time!! It took a lot of time to prepare for our club meetings, much more than I anticipated and being prepared made the difference between having an engaging, fun experience and just wasting time! 
    You will probably come across problems/questions you cannot solve/answer. It could be due to a student making a tiny error that translates into something bigger. Or it could be a computer glitch that doesn't seem to have a fix. Or you are unable to find the "backward thread" to help a student get reoriented after progressing in the wrong direction. Or...or...or...! Unless you are a GIS professional, you will have moments of frustration "not knowing" something. Accept it.
    Remember that introducing kids to GIS isn't about you. It is about the students. Breathe. Relax. Leave personal pride and performance issues at the door. Try to have fun and learn along with your students! And don't be afraid to dump a lesson and try something else if things get bogged down for too long.
    5) What do you think is the most important things (hard or soft skills or other things) your Gang members took from the club?
    Technically, map-making was a critical new skill for my GIS Gang middle schoolers. But I believe the most important result was that they got exposed to something new, something beyond video games. Perhaps it opened a window in their minds of how they could channel their love of computers into a career!
     6) Anything more you'd like to add?
    Although the GRACE program properly limits career internships to high schoolers, I had a few middle school students whose IT skills would have qualified them! In addition, our 8th graders go on to many different schools, both public and parochial. I have my fingers crossed that some of those schools will have GRACE teachers (or GIS experts) in them to further the education of my GIS Gang!
    Both my GeoNet blog and my above answers were composed by a sixth grade teacher who was new to GIS and digital map creation. It is important to note that both high school teachers and teachers who are highly skilled with computers may have a vastly different perspective than my own. At the very least, I think they would have found everything to be much easier. Nevertheless, I enjoyed having a steep learning curve, and now I'm enrolled in a university course learning ArcGIS Desktop!