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GIS in Canadian Education Still Needs Advocacy

In 1995 I was your typical teacher with a degree in geography. I had gotten involved in technology in education. I saw an ad, applied, and got accepted for “Geography for the 21st Century”, a two-week summer institute at Queen’s University sponsored by the newly formed (1993) Canadian Council for Geographic Education. The two main facilitators were Dick Mansfield of the Faculty of Education and Roly Tinline of the Department of Geography. This experience was intensive and became a catalyst for me. It was in Roly’s lab that we were first introduced to GIS with AutoCad. My mind swirled with the possibilities of what I could do with this in the classroom. Later sessions about ArcView, Intergraph, IDRISI, and a field trip to Canada Post headquarters in Ottawa to see GIS in action were the final hooks. I was in. I was going to return to my school in Newfoundland and Labrador and start using GIS, a formidable task at the time when e-mail was not that widespread.

One main rationale of education is to prepare students for future jobs. Also, geography has always been an underappreciated and undervalued discipline. It was sound reasoning that since the school system was caught up in “technology” wasn’t it logical to deduce that this amazing technology, GIS, would be a hook? The career possibilities and the increased profile for geography was inspiring.

The key piece of advice that Dick Mansfield had given us was that in order to affect change, we had to “push from the bottom up.” I should remind you however, that an ever constant in education is that change is slow and extremely frustrating. You will realize just how slow as this unfolds.

The first thing I had to do was to convince my principal to buy the software. I was fortunate enough to be a Department head in a dual language stream school of 1000 students and 30 teachers with a full computer lab. My principal agreed and I was off. My journey was not an easy one and I would need community partners.

We knew we could not do it alone. First steps was to research for the most compatible software for student use. I sought help from the Department of Geography at Memorial University and Dr. Alvin Simms, Professor of GIS. I recall a lot of debate over raster vs. vector. Our first purchase was IDRISI.

I had bought the car; next I had to learn how to drive it before I could teach someone else. Let me remind you here that teachers are responsible for the cost of their own training. Just how much I will write about in another entry. You are probably thinking, silly woman, but realize the teaching profession is full of people like me who do things just for the love of a discipline/profession and are willing to sacrifice their time and resources.

Even now, 15 years later, I cannot say if my initiative made any difference. But I am still pushing. I needed help back then and I firmly believe GIS in education still needs advocacy.

5 comments on "GIS in Canadian Education Still Needs Advocacy"

  1. Avatar Terry says:

    So true. Not enough is being said about geography and the jobs associated with that field for new graduates. With the opportunities in the west more students and graduates should be thinking of geospatial careers.

  2. Avatar Mel says:

    Great article. I agree that GIS tools need to be advocated and used at the highschool level. There are so many opportunities for students to integrate GIS in many disciplines, including Geography. I think it would be a great way to get students interested in our world with hands on application. Students could plot the student body and track demographics or interests with an interactive map!

    1. Avatar Peggy says:

      GIS can be integrated from K-12. ESRI was championing this as far back as the mid 90s. Data can be gathered for limitless projects.

  3. Avatar Ashleigh Harris says:

    I appreciate your point of view and insight, Peggy. Great article!
    I can say that working for Education and Research at Esri Canada, I too share your drive to increase the use of GIS in High School and now even in Elementary!
    I have to say, if you are a teacher and need some support and guidance then I encourage you to contact education@esri.ca. Esri Canada has a dedicated team ready to help teachers learn how to ‘drive the car’, as Peggy put it.
    And Peggy, your initiative HAS made a difference! I often think of the person who lead me to GIS and how he has no idea how he helped my find my passion. I am sure you have many a student thanking you too!

  4. Avatar Peggy says:

    Thank you for your comments, Ashleigh. I know that Esri is and always has been there. We also have some dedicated teachers and school districts, but until all Ministries of Education and their prospective governments are convinced that “geospatial” intelligence is of just as much value as other core curriculum, we will always be kicking this ball around.
    There is always so much hoopla about “edtech”, but that includes everything but GIS.

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