[Note: This article was coordinated by ETCJ associate editor Bonnie Bracey Sutton. See her related article, The ESRI Conferences: A GIS Journey Toward Citizen Science, 8/2/12. – Editor]
Today we face dragons. Some were here when we arrived, others we ourselves unleashed, inattentively, perhaps even mindfully. But they are here, growing in strength, in spread, in number. Tomorrow, we must rely on our children to protect us. For that, they must understand the world, its countless patterns and fractal details, and be able to focus on the key elements of a given puzzle, yet grasp how it fits in the larger whole.
Geography is the study of the world and all that is in it, or was, or could be, at infinitely varied scale. These infinite details link together to make patterns in interlocking systems. If we can tease out the patterns – assemble the vast galaxies of data and classify, symbolize, query, analyze, and model – we can find the keys that help us answer questions, solve problems, design solutions.
Geographic information system (GIS) technology allows us to find, generate, integrate, analyze, manage, and display data, illuminating the patterns and relationships large and small. The tools come in all sizes, shapes, and powers. As children explore and analyze their world, they build the capacity and disposition to see patterns, integrate information, discover relationships, make decisions, solve problems. Like a fire, it grows, slowly at first, needing consumable tinder before sticks, logs, and trunks. But kids devour content like web-based maps, use the tools to leap from the near and familiar to farther afield, bringing along their skills and knowledge, testing those against new situations. They poke into interesting worlds, find crevices, explore ideas, inhale new details. Restlessly, they seek the next challenge, take the larger step, find the next hill to climb and peer over, discovering new concepts and perspectives with which to build capacity.
Around the world, GIS is used in countless jobs, in hundreds of careers, because people need to solve problems and have to understand the nature of things to do that. Esri makes GIS software, and every year we have a conference at which people from around the world meet to celebrate their victories and learn from each other how to do a little more. This year, 14,000 practitioners assembled, including over 800 educators. The International Conference grows every year, and the Education Conference this year grew like wildfire. People are finding hope in problem-based learning, in helping youth from elementary school to graduate school think critically, work collaboratively, dig for answers, extract patterns, and see how to make a difference in their lives, their community, and the planet. They build background in tackling unfamiliar problems, bulking up in STEM fields and social studies content, in communication skills, opening doors to more and more future jobs as they grow.
We will never run out of problems. But, through the power of maps – our common language – we can explore, analyze, and understand our world, and diminish those dragons around us.
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