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.

4 thoughts on “Thinking About Introductory GIS for Kids

  1. Sorry I didn’t read this before now, but here’s my two cents:

    I would steer away from GIS, mainly because I think your target group would find it to be – well – boring. And let’s face it – GIS is kind of boring, unless you have the right kind of mind for it. And, truth be told, it’s not a particularly valuable life skill.

    Orienteering, on the other hand, is a valuable life skill, isn’t boring, and may eventually lead to an interest in GIS. My suggestion here is to teach the little buggers how to read a map (you’d be surprised at how few people actually know how to do this). If you teach them how to use a compass at the same time, you’re giving them skills that could, in fact, save their lives.

  2. My department has been asked by our county 4-H program to put on a similar one-time workshop on GIS in May, so I’m starting to give some thought to activities. In my case, the workshop is slated to be held in a classroom, thus I haven’t thought about outdoor activities, but Hugo’s orienteering idea is a great idea that I’m sure kids would love. Would geocaching be an option, Bill?

    Since it sounds like we will have access to ESRI software, I’m probably going to look at the ArcLessons available on the ESRI Education Community website as a starting point. –

    I’d ultimately like to put as much of a local angle on whatever we do as a way of emphasizing the large and increasing degree of relevance of geospatial technology to the kids’ daily lives. From that perspective, an OSM exercise has popped into my mind. I’m also trying to think of simple analysis exercises involving local issues that would not be too complex for the age group.

    I like your Portable GIS idea, Bill, but I agree with Hugo that it probably needs a look to make sure it’s not overly complex for the kids. After checking out AGX 1200, I think that could be a possibility as well.

    I’ll try to either come back here or blog about what activities we do and our experiences with them. In the meantime, I look forward to more good ideas being bounced around.

    1. I haven’t given a lot of thought to geocaching mainly because I am not that familiar with how it works. With regard to Portable GIS, I think that, in its current form, it may be a little too complex but I like the concept of freely distributable tools that can be run directly off of a thumb drive with no install. That would get me around a lot of hurdles that I have encountered.

      The program that I’ve done is mostly classroom-based with the ability to go out into the schoolyard. That would set the bounds for what I can do but that’s probably enough to work with the concepts.

      Glad to see others are looking at this kind of thing.

  3. We should exchange some ideas.

    You probably want to move from the concrete physical to physical maps and then into gis. And if possible, being physically present in the grounds of the place where they are mapping would be good to help the kids make the mental leap that gis translates into the real world.

    I have done walking papers with my children, and that is something that they really enjoyed. It is Concrete, they have a physical map, and they get to walk around some area.

    I also have had my kids in the OSM parties. In one we got the hike Rock Creek Park and in another we hiked the zoo.

    I would say that the gps unit is not really that interesting to them because it doesn’t seem to do much except to show a tiny map.

    However, they did like entering notes for different points on the way in a notebook.

    A possible activity that you can have for them, although this will take a little bit of planning is to create a short orienteering course. We could skip the compass if that is a problem and the area is small enough, the most important thing would be to use a map to find different points in a playground or a room.

    Another activity, if these are taking place at a school, would be to map their classroom, first creating maps, and then adding points of interest, then adding demographic data, such as how many children are in different parts of the classroom.

    If this could then be translated into software, then the basic concepts should be understood when you move into mapping a school grounds or some local park or area.

    I will have to look at Portable GIS to see if I think my kids could handle it.

    I will probably cross post this comment as an entry in my website.

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