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GIS helps students map History

If you’ve used Google Maps or looked up the weather, you’re familiar with Geographic Information Systems, even if you don’t know it: GIS is creeping into prominence in public life. Associate Professor of Education and Learning Sciences Joshua Radinsky is speeding that up in history classrooms by giving teachers this tool to help their students think critically, historically and spatially.

Radinsky is doing this through his project called CAREER: Teaching and Learning Social Science Inquiry and Spatial Reasoning with GIS. Commonly known as the American Migrations project, Radinsky’s team works with middle schools, high schools, and colleges using this tool to help students understand the underrepresented historic migrations of African Americans and Latinos. The Project goes beyond historical dates allowing students to find patterns in data using GIS. With GIS, students begin asking their own questions regarding historical migrations from census data, and may come to conclusions of how those migrations have shaped American history. Its cultural relevance to urban schools paves the way for GIS to be used for various learning purposes.

GIS is an educationally valuable tool for history classes. With GIS, Math, Reading, and Science are applied in social sciences by attempting to enhance spatial reasoning skills. This is demonstrated through census data, maps, and spatial inquiry activities that teachers use.

This teaching strategy incorporates multiple disciplines in lessons and demonstrates innovative practices in curriculum that makes what researchers at the Learning Sciences Research Institute do unique. The research in the American Migrations project is “tied into real world practice,” Radinsky said, “where teams are immersed in real classrooms working with teachers,” while closely studying and documenting which teaching strategies yield certain types of learning. They also study how learning changes with variations of applied curriculum. The $714,500 project, now in its third year, is funded by the National Science Foundation. Radinsky plans to assess what works and gather data concerning student and teacher navigation through GIS software during the next two years.

Researchers are also creating assessments that measure how much and how well students are learning with GIS. The project aims to create an effective way of sharing teaching techniques and strategies in technological settings.

Radinsky also plans to roll out his curriculum on a larger scale in workshops and online in coming months.

“We already have been successful at giving teachers tools that they can use for instruction and we hope to do this at scale with online curriculum that is very useable.”

“I’m excited,” he said.

— Francisca Corona