Thinking About Introductory GIS for Kids

Several years ago, I took my family with me to the ESRI International User Conference and we spent a lot of time checking things out around San Diego. My son also participated in “GIS Kids Camp” at the UC, where ESRI staff took kids through a few scenarios so they could do some simple analysis, data processing and mapping to get a feel for GIS. My son loved it and I think it was a good program that ESRI did a great job putting together.

Fast-forward to the present: For the last few years, my wife has coordinated a 6-week after-school enrichment program that runs in mid-winter, when all of the sports are not running. It usually attracts a sizable chunk of the student body in our small elementary school. There are usually six to eight volunteer-run “classes” focused around whatever activity someone chooses to do.

The first two years, I ran a class on PowerPoint. I felt the need to have at least one computer-related class and the teachers said that middle school has kids do a lot with PowerPoint in group projects so it would be good to have them somewhat prepared before they get there. So I tried my best to create a small army of “presentation zen” warriors. Just for the record, 4th and 5th grade boys can always find the animations and sound effects, even if you try to steer them away from them.

Of course, it’s always been in the back of my mind to do something GIS-related. The Kids Camp from the UC was very succinct but gave the kids a good feeling for the concepts, much as would be needed for this. The main problem is that I haven’t spent the time between each annual running of the program thinking of what it would look like. I always start to think about it a few weeks before the program starts, which is not enough time to do it well.

My experience doing the PowerPoint class has given me a feeling for the technical constraints. As you can imagine, computers in the schools are very controlled. The desktop configuration is locked down so tightly that a DoD information assurance officer would be envious. This would make it impractical to try and install any kind of desktop software to work with. Web access is also heavily filtered, making it difficult to do any kind of data discovery. Also, quite frankly, the target audience is 3rd to 5th graders who have had zero exposure to anything geospatial.

So, knowing that it would not be possible to locally install something like ArcGIS or Google Earth or some other such desktop software and that filtering may make a purely online tool such as GeoCommons impractical, I am thinking that some variation on Jo Cook’s Portable GIS might be a good technical platform to consider for this sort of thing. The nice part about it is that the kids could take it home after the program and keep playing with it if they wanted to.

The really hard part, however, would be thinking up a logical progression of activities that could be done in six one-hour chunks and would leave the kids with a meaningful experience. Those activities, bundled with the technical platform and the data necessary to perform them could make for a nice ready-to-use primer for young kids.

Well, I have a year to think about it. Any suggestions, online or offline, are welcome.