By Jeni Henrickson and Aaron Doering
Geographic knowledge and inquiry skills are key in today’s globally interdependent world, including within the preservation field. Understanding geographic concepts like location, place, movement, human/environment interaction, and region is key to addressing challenges that have a worldwide impact—climate change, migration, political unrest, and food insecurity—as well as more locally centered challenges surrounding environmental and historic preservation and land use. The geospatial industry is a burgeoning field, feeding an average $73 billion per year into our national economy. It is one of the fastest growing technology fields, with jobs increasing at an annual rate of 30 percent and impacting multiple career paths.
While both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act identify geography as a core K–12 academic subject, it has yet to receive the federal funding and attention enjoyed by other core subjects. And although geography decidedly fits within the much-in-demand science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) umbrella, it is often overlooked there too. Thus, new tools and models are needed to guide teachers and learners through the process of geographic inquiry.
Geographic learning includes a broad swath of transdisciplinary skills, spatial understanding, and technology training. It also presents an understanding of culture and the changing nature and relationships of human and environmental systems around the globe. And as geographic inquiry rapidly embraces new technologies like geographic informational systems (GIS), it is critical for teachers and students to engage with these technologies.
To address these challenges, the Learning Technologies (LT) Media Lab at the University of Minnesota, in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and with funding by geospatial pioneer Esri, designed and developed EarthXplorers, a new online learning environment. EarthXplorers offers an inquiry- and project-based approach to learning about history and preservation, while also learning to use GIS. Its mission is to support middle and high school students and teachers through the inquiry process using mapping and analytics platform ArcGIS in conjunction with field-based activities, data collection, analysis, spatial visualization, and storytelling.
EarthXplorers learning modules are centered on historically significant U.S. sites that tie to contemporary issues such as migration, natural resource extraction, and urban development. The LT Media Lab worked closely with the National Trust to identify the historic sites featured: the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, the Mississippi Delta, Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, Hinchliffe Stadium, and the James River. An additional learning module focuses on the history of cartography.
Short mission videos at the beginning of each module offer a compelling overview of the site and the contemporary issues surrounding it. Each module also presents students with two activities: a mapping challenge using ArcGIS and a “Take It Local” project, in which students complete research and create an interactive story around an issue in their own communities. Along with teaching GIS, EarthXplorers seeks to engage students with the preservation field and with the preservation possibilities and challenges in their own communities.
EarthXplorers is innovative on a number of fronts:
- It seamlessly integrates ArcGIS, guiding teachers and learners alike through the real-world use of GIS to solve contemporary issues. Students complete mapping challenges related to historic sites in national parks as well as their own communities.
- It focuses on real-world learning and uses national geography and history standards to undergird the learning process.
- It uses spatial thinking and user-driven design to help us understand how people learn—students generate maps layered with local data and design their own studies around local issues.
- It encourages learners to be storytellers as well as scientists, fostering deeper engagement with and understanding of content as they identify, research, and communicate findings about local preservation challenges.
- It creates new formative assessment opportunities for teachers, as they follow students’ critical thinking processes.
EarthXplorers is a completely free online environment that includes access to a classroom management system to help teachers track their students’ work. Other teacher tools include grading rubrics, classroom discussion questions, and short video tutorials that guide the process of working with ArcGIS.
Dr. Jeni Henrickson is the creative director at the Learning Technologies (LT) Media Lab at the University of Minnesota (UMN). Dr. Aaron Doering is director of the LT Media Lab and a full professor in learning technologies at UMN.