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Geographical Information Systems (GIS)

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Definition and introduction to GIS

A Geographical Information System (GIS) comprises a computer and specialist software that displays geographically referenced data on a map. GIS software enables the user to zoom in and out to appropriate scales, turn layers of information on and off and even add data. Put simply, we can think of GIS as a digital tracing paper overlay on a base map. Many GIS can be accessed online and GIS can often be shared and viewed on mobile devices, making them versatile and highly cost-effective tools for everyday life as well as education: one of the most widely-used GIS applications is probably Google Maps live navigation data for route planning.

GIS within the geography curriculum

As GIS is so effective at visualising spatial and place-based information it can be applied anywhere within the geography curriculum, in every topic from local to global scales. It helps investigate geographical relationships, patterns and trends and therefore complements an enquiry-based approach within lessons. GIS also helps students explore and compare places, visualise landscapes or display data. The growing availability of mobile devices means GIS can also add real value to geography fieldwork. GIS is included in the National Curriculum for geography and in all GCSE and A level specifications.

Students looking at computer

GIS in lesson planning

GIS has a wide range of applications in curriculum making and lesson planning in geography. As a tool for both drawing and interpreting maps, it can be used simply to help students interrogate a ready-made map during a lesson or for more complex tasks over a series of lessons, such as local fieldwork investigations. By allowing maps to be annotated with text or linked to photos and videos, GIS can also be used to create 'story maps' – maps with compelling geographical narratives. It can also support decision-making exercises to assess a wide range of challenges, such as the advantages of particular sites or routes.

Aerial view of Rio de Janeiro

Progression in GIS

GIS should be used throughout primary and secondary schools, with a clear progression in the challenge required. Foundation skills revolve around viewing data and simple processing: turning layers on and off, changing base maps, measuring distances, finding co-ordinates and adding map notes. Intermediate GIS skills comprise more complex presentation decisions, such as how to visualise data; adding data, whether fieldwork or secondary data and exploring, analysing and evaluating data sets. Advanced skills include creating sophisticated data visualisations through analytical tools or manipulating data and using statistical tools in quantitative data analysis.

Aerial view of London

Sources of GIS teaching resources

There are many free online GIS for use in the classroom, such as police.uk for investigating crime patterns and Wunderground’s weather map for current meteorological conditions at any scale. The GA’s Online Teaching Resources contain a range of GIS ideas and teaching materials. ESRI (an international supplier of GIS software) provides a set of freely available GIS resources through its ArcGIS Online platform. GIS can be also accessed through annual subscription services: Digimap for Schools is an online mapping service providing current and historical Ordnance Survey maps for viewing and printing.

Teacher showing students work

Teaching about GIS

Teaching the principles and concepts of GIS not only helps address the requirement that, by A level, geography students should understand geo-spatial technologies such as GIS. Teaching about the real-world application of GIS also builds understanding of the importance and relevance of this technology in society. As a growing industry and source of employment, teaching about GIS applications and careers could even inspire students to follow a GIS career path in the future.

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National Festival of Fieldwork 2024

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