Spatial Environmental Education: Teaching and Learning about the Environment with a Spatial Framework

A photo of a desert scene schowing Joshua trees in the foreground and background. Credit: Joesph Kerski

Environmental data can be an effective means to teach and learn about the environment through a spatial framework and geotechnologies. Image Credit: Joseph Kerski.

By Joseph J. Kerski
Education Manager, Esri

Zooming in to a satellite image to examine deforestation, visualizing the retreat of a glacier, and navigating a trail on a smartphone have become commonplace in the 21st century. People have always been fascinated with investigating their home: the Earth. For centuries, maps have stirred imaginations and inspired explorations of the unknown. Far from the static documents of the past, today’s maps can be manipulated and combined with other maps, charts, satellite images, databases, photographs, videos, websites, and other data to help us understand spatial relationships. These maps and the everyday activities detailed above are possible because of geotechnologies, which include Geographic Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing and Global Positioning Systems (GPS). However, the technologies do not stand alone. They are effective because the people using them have cultivated the spatial framework — a way of looking at the world from a geographic perspective by examining patterns, relationships and trends through maps, and analyzing how geotechnologies and spatial frameworks help people make decisions. These decisions include: planning urban greenways, mitigating invasive weeds, locating the optimal site for a wind energy farm, and studying groundwater withdrawal and the impact on aquifers, from a local to global scale.

Why Use Geotechnologies in Environmental Science Education?

Geotechnologies are more than cool tools; they provide a way of exploring a rich body of content, a framework for thinking about the world and key critical and holistic thinking skills. Moreover, they offer career pathways that are increasingly in demand according to the U.S. Department of Labor (Gewin 2004). GIS provides a problem-solving, standards-based skill set. Through GIS, students grapple with current, relevant, important issues in science, such as sustainable agriculture, natural hazards, water, energy and climate change. GIS enables these issues to be analyzed spatially because they all have a geographic component. Spatial analysis through geotechnologies helps students solve problems. Students begin to see the big picture so that they can understand how different patterns and trends are related. Students become involved digital citizens that can use the technologies to ask the “what if” questions, test hypotheses, and model scenarios using a valuable 21st century tool.

Satellit image of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya. Creidt: Joseph Kerski

Today’s geotechnologies can be easily combined with multimedia, such as the author’s field study at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, Kenya. Image Credit: Joseph Kerski.

Spatial analysis appeals to today’s visual learners. Spatially based questions begin with questions. Why are cities located where they are, and how are they affected by their proximity to nearby things and by global interconnections? What is the relationship between birth rate and life expectancy? How does acid mine drainage in a mountain range affect downstream water quality? How will climate change affect global food production? Giving students a reason to learn is powerful. Studying environmental issues with GIS lends relevancy and real-world contexts to these issues. The central themes environmental scientists have studied for years, such as sustainable agriculture, climate change, and the impact of water and air pollution on health, have in recent decades become topics on daily newscasts and increasingly affect our everyday lives. Connecting students with their curriculum through real-world data and issues builds spatial bridges in students’ brains and appeals to multiple ways of learning. Students learn to transfer knowledge, to inquire strategically, to connect to their community, and to solve problems with real data.

How Can Geotechnologies Be Used in Environmental Science Education?

Today’s geotechnologies can be used in a wide variety of ways in terms of devices, settings and instructional approaches. First, in terms of devices, like other technologies, GIS has seen a rapid migration into cloud-based computing in the past two years. This means that GIS tools such as ArcGIS Online can be run via the Internet. Second, in terms of settings, this means GIS can be accessed in a classroom with one computer and a projector, in a computer lab and in the field. Third, in terms of instructional approaches, GIS can be used in multiple disciplines and to analyze a myriad of issues. Every environmental issue occurs at a specific scale and sometimes at multiple scales. For example, climate change is a global phenomenon that also impacts local weather and crop yields, and GIS allows for the many variables necessary in environmental analysis to be used as map and image layers, at many scales and analyzed in two and three dimensions.

Not only does GIS enhance environmental studies, but also conversely, a firm grounding in environmental studies enhances the use of GIS. Asking questions is the first part of scientific inquiry, forming the basis for knowing what types of environmental data to collect, what data to analyze and what decisions to make. Geotechnologies do not ask the questions, rather, it is the user of geotechnologies that has a firm foundation in content, the spatial perspective, and spatial skills. Because the field of environmental studies has become more quantitative, experimental and analytical during the past century, GIS is the perfect tool in which to study environmental processes through databases, maps and spatial statistics.
Screenshot showing ArcGIS Examining changes in the Aral Sea using historical satellite imagery in ArcGIS Online. Image Credit:  Esri, with imagery from USGS and NASA.

Examining changes in the Aral Sea using historical satellite imagery in ArcGIS Online. Image Credit: Esri, with imagery from USGS and NASA.

One of the central themes of environmental study is examining the interaction between humans and the environment. How does the environment affect people, through such characteristics as daily weather and long-term climate, native plants and animals, landforms, the availability of water, local and regional natural hazards, and the type of predominant soils? Conversely, how do humans affect their environment?

Another central theme is change. The Earth is a dynamic planet. Comparing land cover change based on examining Landsat satellite imagery, comparing the variation in the frequency and intensity of hurricanes by year, or investigating population change by neighborhood are three of the many ways in which change can be examined using GIS.

It is not enough to know only content, because environmental phenomena interact, move and change. Therefore, relationships and processes are critical to understanding. GIS can foster each of the Center for Ecoliteracy’s six core ecological concepts: networks, nested systems, cycles, flows, development, and dynamic balance. GIS allows variables to be inputed, modeled and modified so that the dynamics of environmental processes can be studied. Hungerford and Volk (1991) defined nine key ecological concepts that they said were necessary for environmental education programs, including individuals and populations, interactions and interdependence, environmental influences and limiting factors, energy flow and nutrient cycling, community and ecosystem concepts, homeostasis, succession, humans as members of ecosystems, and ecological implications of human activities and communities.

GIS can enhance the teaching of these concepts. A current NSF-funded project on environmental literacy (NAAEE 2011) has resulted in a definition that includes four interrelated components: competencies, knowledge, dispositions, and environmentally responsible behavior. By using the same tools used by scientists, GIS aids in the first two of these, and by investigating real issues in their communities and beyond, GIS aids in helping with the last two of these components.

Students who use GIS in tandem with environmental studies develop key critical thinking skills. These skills include understanding how to carefully evaluate and use data. This is especially critical in assessing environmental data, due to its increasing volume and diversity, and given its often sensitive and politically charged nature. In addition, crowd-sourced data are now appearing from “citizen science” initiatives all over the world, where ordinary people collect information on pine beetle infestation, the appearance of monarch butterflies in their community each spring, the date of the first frost, and a host of other data. These data are more frequently being tied to real-world coordinates that are mapped and analyzed. Students and graduates using GIS and who are grounded in environmental studies will be in demand to help make sense of this deluge of incoming data.

Students using these tools can map phenomena and features such as ocean currents, ecoregions and the location of geothermal energy. They can use the tools to answer various questions. How does pH vary along this stretch of river, and why? How do tree species and tree height change depending on the slope angle and slope direction of the mountain, and why? Why do wind speed and direction vary across North America the way they do?

Geotechnologies were created and are continually developed specifically to solve problems. As such, they are key tools used not only by environmental studies students, but also by hundreds of thousands of practicing environmental scientists around the world on a daily basis.

Collaborative citizen science tree mapping from smartphones displayed in ArcGIS Online. Image Credit: Esri.

Collaborative citizen science tree mapping from smartphones displayed in ArcGIS Online. Image Credit: Esri.

Students who are well grounded in the spatial perspective through GIS are better able to, upon graduation, use data at a variety of scales, in a variety of contexts, think systematically and holistically, and use quantitative and qualitative approaches to solve problems. In short, these graduates are better decision-makers.

Students engaged in GIS and environmental studies make heavy use of the geographic inquiry process, which involves asking geographic questions, acquiring geographic resources and data, analyzing geographic data, assessing and making decisions from resulting geographic information, and acting on that geographic information. This often leads to additional geographic questions, and the cycle continues.

Key to this process is that studying geography and environmental studies is an applied science and it leads to action. GIS was a green tool long before green was popular. GIS is used on a daily basis to benefit the environment, from protecting elephant habitat in Africa to planning urban greenways in the local community, and thousands of other ways in between.

GIS through environmental studies adheres to the tenet that learning is often most effective when it takes place outdoors. In a world where outdoor education is often cut due to budgetary constraints, and when a frighteningly large proportion of the population has almost no connection with the outdoors, it bears emphasizing. In the field, students gain additional insight about processes, scale and the environment. They can sketch, record video, take photographs or simply use their senses. They can collaboratively collect data using an ordinary smartphone and have those results appear automatically on a web-based GIS map.

Beyond data collection, studies (e.g., Louv 2006) show that if students do not receive repeated and deep immersion in natural places while young will not value or appreciate natural places or their associated environmental processes or issues as adult decision-makers. Given the widespread environmental concerns faced by the modern world, it is imperative that students study and understand these issues, not only to equip them for life in the 21st century, but also to ensure that we emerge at the end of the 21st century in a sustainable way. How can we expect decision-makers to care about the planet unless they have learned about the planet as students? And how can they learn about the planet unless they study the environment and use GIS in doing so as students?

The importance of fieldwork goes far beyond the environmental or geography education communities. David Sobel’s “Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education” (1996) makes it clear that essential to helping students to understand environmental issues in distant lands is to cultivate connections to the local environment by teaching about local systems. “What’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it, before being asked to heal its wounds,” Sobel wrote. This can be done through his stages of empathy, exploration and social action. His statements such as “Authentic environmental commitment emerges out of firsthand experiences with real places on a small, manageable scale” are expanded in his book “Place-Based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities.”

Even if students cannot get away from campus, they can still collect data right on school grounds. Dr Broda’s book series starting with “SchoolYard Enhanced Learning” provides excellent ideas on how to do just that. To support your continued advocacy for fieldwork in your own educational institution, see a video titled “Why is fieldwork important?

Photograph of a young woman using a GPS unit in the field. Credit: J. Kerski

Positions and characteristics collected in the field can be easily mapped and analyzed within a GIS. Image Credit: Joseph Kerski.

Getting Started: Resources in GIS and Environmental Education

The Esri EdCommunity portal connects educators to resources that enable the effective use of GIS in environmental education and in other disciplines. For example, five activities invite investigation into wind and wind energy from a continental to a local scale, and are available online at These include examining current wind speed and direction in North America and comparing it to student-collected local data, and siting a wind farm in Indiana. Another activity invites students to explore the famous, enormous San Gorgonio Wind Farm in California. The last activity uses ArcGIS Online as a tool for siting a wind turbine on a typical school campus, considering relief, proximity to buildings, wind speed, local access, and other variables.

A series of videos on the Esri Education Team’s YouTube Channel and on a geography channel describes the process of gathering field data with GPS, probes, and smartphones and mapping it with GIS.

The North American Environmental Atlas also uses web-GIS technology to reveal watersheds, ecoregions, human impact on protected areas, industrial pollution, wetlands, land cover, conservation areas, and more.


Broda, Herbert W. 2007. Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Gewin, Virginia. 2004. Careers and recruitment: Mapping Opportunities. Nature. 427: 376-377.

Hungerford, Harold R., and Trudi L. Volk. 1998. Curriculum Development in Environmental Education for the Primary School: Challenges and Responsibilities. Essential Readings in Environmental Education. Champaign, IL: Stipes.

Louv, Richard. 2006. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

NAAEE. 2011. Developing a framework for assessing environmental literacy: Executive Summary. NSF project report. Washington, DC: North American Association for Environmental Education.

Sobel, David. 1999. Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education (Nature Literacy Series, Vol. 1) . Orion Society.