December 2, 2010

Geography and Exploration: IT Location Basics in the College Curriculum

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

How can a geography teacher convey his curiosity about the sense and meaning of places to students and still keep up with the rapidly changing geography of world events? GIS or geographical information systems, a Canadian invention, does just that but requires some work to integrate it into the curriculum. That is where the dedicated staff at CCDMD (an organisation whose mandate is to manage and develop materials for college curriculum) provided me with the opportunity to develop some practical exercises and put them on a website for use by students, teachers or the general public. I teach geography and use information technology and GIS regularly in my classes at Champlain – St. Lawrence. The GIS I use in my geography courses allows students to discover, analyze and describe vulnerable areas, cultures, development and other human and natural phenomena by overlaying layers of information, something that online mapping services do not allow. This satisfies many of the objectives of the college Social Science program as it helps students understand a human phenomenon and analyze it by applying concepts from the social sciences.

Geographic information system article in The Full Wiki.

There is a bit of Samuel de Champlain or Huckleberry Finn in each of us as we surf the net or use street view in Google maps to get a sense of what can be seen or discovered at any particular location. Exploration has long been an objective of geography, but advances in modern information technology now make it accessible to all!! With an internet connection and a few clicks we can locate any place on earth using  any one of many available online location mapping services. However, as world events show us, the same places often take on many different meanings as their context changes. Port-au-Prince is the capital city of Haiti but is also located in close proximity to major fault lines and was the recent scene of a disastrous earthquake.

Fault Lines Around Haiti.

Building the capacity to use a GIS in a pedagogical setting was not an easy task. An initial project based on open source was submitted to the CCDMD in 2006, but the proposed open source software did not prove operational. I consequently submitted a proposal using free stock software provided by ESRI, a major GIS software provider. The proposal was accepted, and with the sustained support of the CCDMD, a set of three GIS learning modules were developed and mounted on the CCDMD website along with support materials for use by teachers and students.


Modules 1 and 2 focus on developing some geographical skills like building a map document. Module 3 of the GIS learning modules relates tectonic phenomena (earthquakes) with human phenomena (large urban centres in countries with a low human development index) to create an overall picture of large urban centres vulnerable to earthquake damage. The final map produced in this module clearly indicates that Port-au-Prince in Haiti was in a very vulnerable situation, like several other large urban centres around the world!

Since the initial project with the CCDMD, I have developed other applications and pedagogical practices. Whether task or curiosity driven, exploration facilitates decision making and often brings out new and sometimes unexpected information!  For example, in my Cultural and Political Geography class I will ask my students to analyze the ethnic composition of an urban area to find out if Montréal’s “Little Italy” is really where you find the highest concentration of population of Italian ethnic origin. This is integrated with a field-trip to Montréal where my students will analyze the visible signs of the ethnic urban landscape and then make their own analysis using their observations and an online map I created using ArcGIS (GIS software) and Statistics Canada data. Back in the classroom and using some of the learning modules provided at the CCDMD website, students can analyze the interrelations between layers of data about income, ethnicity, age, language or other social data by using a GIS in the classroom. In teams, they manipulate this info and arrange it for specific needs. I have to provide the data and arrange it so that students can focus on building their map and developing their analyses. This permits students to go way beyond what is provided by Google Maps since they can integrate their own specific information and analyze problems using information from numerous sources that they can use and manipulate in the GIS.

Italian Population in Montreal.

It would be interesting to see other applications of GIS in the college social science program and the experience of other teachers who have used it. In the future I would like to incorporate the use of GPS with GIS so that students could take location measures and photos and integrate this information into their maps. I am also trying to see how Statistics Canada data can be made available at the college level so that students/teachers can map that goldmine of information and describe the communities they live in.

Any suggestions or comments?

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