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What is a GIS?

A GIS, or Geographic Information System, is a powerful computer software for managing all sorts of information according to precise geographical location.

A GIS may be a map of your schoolyard, your neighborhood, your state, your watershed, or your country. What makes GIS different from a simple map is that it may be attached to a database table or chart. This way, multiple "layers" are attached to various features. Users can zoom in and out on a map, and add or subtract information from the map.

A GIS might allow emergency planners to easily calculate emergency response times in the event of a natural disaster, or a GIS might be used to find wetlands that need protection from pollution.

Using a GIS, a schoolyard may be color-coded according to use: kindergarten playground, blacktop, school garden, etc. Each area may have a database attached which tells how many square feet or how many children used the area on a given day. Squirrel nests may be recorded as points on the map, and the detailed data sets are attached to these points.

GIS is an ideal method to investigate patterns and relationships in the environment.

The use of computerized information is a growing part of everyday life. In today's society people look to electronically stored geographic, social, economic, political, and environmental information to help them answer practical questions in their daily lives. The answers they find have relevance in their education, influence personal choices and business decisions, and expand their understanding of the place they call home.

Currently, GIS is not commonly used in K-12 classrooms. In the few places where it has been used, students often utilize GIS software to understand and solve real-world problems. The programs allow them to overlay multiple "themes" of information to question different "what if" assumptions. By attaching data to coordinates on a map, students can visualize patterns, trends and ideas while gaining a better understanding of geographic concepts.

Potential student projects include the following:

  1. analyzing meteorological information
  2. investigating community crime problems
  3. studying and making recommendation on the use of federal lands
  4. researching pollution and its effects on the community
  5. evaluating various local features such as population, transportation, watersheds, topography, vegetation or soil type