Mapping Space: Geographical Information Systems for School Education

Anu Joy

The paper explores the potential of Geographical Information Systems as an educational tool that can address a range of spatial questions in the school classrooms and support teaching and learning of diverse school subjects ranging from History to Social Sciences to Natural Sciences. GIS has the potential to integrate a vast variety of information and its geo spatial visualization. Thus a single tool can be used to teach diverse topics and various aspects of a geographical location such as regional peculiarities, cultural resources, socio-economic realties, historical sites, biodiversity, land and water resources, settlement patterns, bio-physical and agro-ecological characteristics, stars that appear on the night skies, rainfall and temperature data and many others. The process of creating maps and data bases of familiar everyday world can enhance children’s understanding of geographical locations, sense of space and entities in it, direction, visuo-spatial thinking, observational, and cartographic skills. It can also help children to build connection with nature and to their own localities, spaces and entities in it, which can motivate children to take initiative to conserve their local environment, by knowing the resources available (physical, historical and cultural) and how their practices, usage and interventions can create an impact.

Despite this potential, and availability of computer in schools and free GIS softwares, the use of modern day tools and techniques such as GIS is practically absent in the Indian school classrooms towards teaching and learning. Indian school curriculum in the subject area of Social Studies pays attention to map reading (world map, political maps, geophysical maps etc.), but little attention is paid to the process of creating maps. Map reading and map making involves different skills. Map making involves active visualization of space, directions, proportions, routes, landmarks, buildings, trees, placing the map maker also on the map, etc. The concepts, techniques and methods of map making do not constitute children’s regular school curriculum and this necessitates the design and evolution of a pedagogy and content for introducing tools of map making as part of school learning.

This paper presents the details of the content and pedagogy developed together with the tools and resources used for a summer workshop conducted with 18 school children from grade IV to grade VIII, to introduce them to the tools, techniques and concepts of mapmaking. The workshop focused on directing children to discover and understand the significance of their familiar everyday world and immediate surroundings for map making. The mode of instruction included activities such as drawing maps of familiar locations and route maps, familiarizing with software tools, field walks, navigating with maps and GPS, and collecting data to create maps that highlighted environmentally significant aspects of a campus. During the initial sessions, children drew maps of small areas such as their home and its surroundings, school locality, route map from home to nearby bus stop/school etc. Later children were guided through two projects to track and create maps using a set of icons that represented buildings, landscaping, biodiversity and renewable and non renewable energy sources of a 5.75 acre campus of a research institute that brought together the concepts learned, use of computer, software tools and techniques. Children identified and geocoded, a total of 363 trees which belonged to 82 different species, 69 genera and 33 families. Each child chose four types of trees and mapped their locations in the campus to represent it on the map. They used GPS to track the relevant entities and then load the information on to Google Earth and view the points on the background of satellite image. The workshop also introduced the following concepts through children’s seminars and groups discussions a) Maps and its significance for everyday life b)Locations, directions and land marks c) Elements of map making d) Map scale and proportions: Large scale and small scale maps e) Reading maps: district maps, state maps, world maps, and using globe f) Symbology, Legend box and map features g) Latitude and longitude h) Techniques of map making: from traditional to the modern i)Types of maps j) Surveying and mapping k) The story of great arc l) Aerial maps and mapping from above and m) GPS and GIS.

The hand drawn maps of 18 children provide insights into how children visualize a geographical space and transform the three dimensional visualization to that of two dimensional. Also how children perceive and represent their everyday familiar world through symbolization, abstraction and generalization?

The activities, tasks and projects conducted during the workshop with children shows that a learning module of the above kind can provide an authentic context for an inquiry mode of learning. Children reached at their own learning independently through discussions, seminars, projects, activities and working in teams. The workshop did not focus on specific learning outcomes, rather encouraged diversity in outcomes among children of different age group based on their ability and pace. The learning outcomes were assessed while performing the tasks and in practical contexts that reflected the contexts and usage of concepts in appropriate ways. What was interesting to note was even the junior children who participated in the workshop were able to create maps and database, use GPS and software tools, apply relevant concepts and enhance their understanding of space, of trees and plants etc., where senior/ more knowledgeable children acted as capable peers who motivated and guided learning. This shows to us that a heterogeneous group of children of mixed ability and age can create a rich learning context and produce better learning outcomes.