For the Teacher 

1. Preview of Main Ideas

Our curiosity about Earth dates back thousands of years ago from celestial observations of our place in space, representations of our human-environment on cave walls, and mapping out our position on stone tablets. In the 21st century, observation of Earth means visualizing, modeling, and analyzing geographic data with a suite of geospatial tools including Earth-observing satellites, ground-based observers and sensors, Geographic Information System (GIS), and broadband communications. These tools, drawing on location-based data, provide knowledge to solve problems at all geographic scales.

2. Connection with the Curriculum

  • These activities can be used in geography, social studies, and technology application classes.
  • These lessons are designed for upper-level high school, community college, and first and second-year undergraduate students.

3. Time Required

One to two sixty minute class periods for each Geographic Investigation lesson.

4. Materials

  • Computer with Internet access.
  • Copies of map: Geospatial Exploration for Personal Decision Making (one per student).
  • Rulers, compass circles, and pencil crayon/marker of different colors.

5. Preparation

These lessons use select web sources to explore examples of the use of geospatial tools in both personal and scientific decision making. In each lesson, the use of geospatial tools is demonstrated through the analysis of specific decision-making situations. The lessons are intended to illustrate how the geographer’s unique perspective - the “geographic advantage” – contributes to the understanding and analysis of problems ranging from selecting a personal residence to tracking the spread of disease. Before leading students through the Geographic Investigation lessons, teachers should visit each website to 1) ensure that they are permitted (not blocked) by the school and 2) familiarize yourself with the information on each site.

Lesson 1: Technology for Personal Decisions


By the end of the lesson students will be able to:

1. Use layers of mapped information to make informed decisions.
2. Describe and provide examples of ways that modern geospatial technologies have altered the ways we make personal decisions.

Opening the Lesson

Introduce the lesson by challenging students to define the word “revolution.” If their answers focus on political revolutions, ask them about the use of the term in such phrases as the industrial revolution or the feminist revolution. A revolution can be any drastic change in the ways people do things (e.g., produce goods) or perceive things (e.g., gender roles). Explain that in this module they will be exploring the “geospatial revolution.”

Use a projector to show episode 1 of The Geospatial Revolution to the class. Ask students to define the “geospatial” revolution.” What kind of “drastic change” is this revolution bringing about? Ask them how the statement at the end of the video, “Revolutions rarely end up the way they started,” applies to the geospatial revolution.

Activity 1: Data quality

Opening the Lesson

Begin the activity by presenting this scenario to your students:

You are in City A visiting a friend and you need to find out when you can get a bus back to City B where you live. Your friend tells you that buses leave at 7 am, 8:30 am, and 11 am. In your backpack you find a bus schedule from last year. You have a smartphone and can check the bus company’s website. What are the pros and cons of relying on your friend, the printed bus schedule, or your smartphone to determine when the busses leave?

Answers will vary, but should include the following ideas:

  • Relying on your friend’s information will depend on how confident you are that the friend is a dependable source of information.
  • Relying on last year’s schedule will be problematic if the schedule has changed. That data is not current.
  • Relying on the schedule posted on the bus company’s web site is a good choice because the bus company is an ‘authoritative” source of bus schedule data.

Developing the Lesson

Ask students to use the link on the Technology for Personal Decisions web page to go to and ask them to enter their school’s zip code. Discuss the questions about data quality under the link. Summarize the discussion and exploration by pointing out that, when making decisions, it is important to think about the quality of the data you are basing that decision upon. There are a number of issues to consider when evaluating data quality: the data source, how current the data are, the purposes for which the data are intended, etc.

Activity 2: Geospatial exploration for personal decision-making

Opening the Lesson

Ask students to think of a time when they used geospatial information to make a personal decision (where to have dinner, where to buy a product, what route to take to a specific destination, etc). Explain that in this activity they will use geospatial information to make a hypothetical personal decision.

Read the scenario aloud to students:

  • Working in pairs at a computer, students should take a few minutes to examine the maps of pertinent information: location of coffee shops, location of reported crimes, and possible rental locations including price and pet-friendliness information.
  • Give each pair a copy of the Full Map, a ruler, a compass circle, and a pencil crayon/marker of two different colors.  
  • Following the directions on the Activity 2 web page, students should find an apartment that meets the criteria they have set.

At the end of this process, students will have arrived at one or more suitable housing locations. Compare student selections and consider the following questions:

  • If there are a number of different apartment selections, ask students why this might have happened (criteria such as price range may have differed, students may have decided they cannot afford to have a pet, etc.).
  • Do you see any pattern of variation in price range as it relates to either crime rates or coffee shops?
  • What sort of results did you obtain and how might those change if you perform the same procedures in the future and in the past? Explain the reasons for possible differences.
  • Compare answers to the Student Response questions.

Conclude the lesson by challenging students to brainstorm additional examples of personal decisions which would require geospatial information. Process these examples in one of the following ways:

  • Ask students to write their examples on a post-it note and post it on a board titled Geospatial Information for Personal Decisions.
  • Divide the class into small groups and challenge each group to identify as many examples (of personal decisions which would require geospatial information) as they can in 3 minutes. At the end of 3 minutes each group should share their list.

Assessing Student Learning

Create a document or media presentation that provides examples of people using geospatial information and technology to make personal decisions while also providing guidelines for assessing the quality of geospatial information.

Lesson 2: Technology for Scientific Decisions


By the end of the lesson students will be able to:
1. Describe ways that geospatial technologies have changed the process of collecting, visualizing, and analyzing spatial data.
2. Compare spatial patterns among multiple data layers at differing scales.
3. Describe and provide examples of ways that modern geospatial technologies have changed the process of scientific decision-making.

Opening the Lesson

Begin the class by showing the class a table or spreadsheet of earthquake data without telling them the subject of that table. Challenge them to identify the subject. Fields such as magnitude or depth provide hints to the table content. Once the topic is identified as earthquakes, ask the students what they can learn about earthquakes from this table. Then show students a map of the same data and ask them which document – the table or the map – provides the most insight into earthquake events, their patterns of distribution, and so on. Sample images of an earthquake table and map can be found below. Explain that in this lesson, students will explore the use of geospatial technologies in the visual display and analysis of spatial data.

Red symbols = earthquakes
Green symbols = the 10 largest quakes in the period
Yellow symbols = volcanoes

Developing the Lesson

Working individually or in pairs, ask students to explore and compare the two maps of cholera outbreaks at the beginning of the lesson. Discuss the questions beneath the maps. The importance of the Snow map is that it clearly illustrates the way a map enhances understanding of a phenomenon and provides insights that would not otherwise be apparent. The 2010 Haiti map illustrates the power of geospatial technologies to do the same with multiple larger datasets that would be virtually impossible to map by hand.

Activity: Carbon emissions at a national level

Opening the Lesson

Begin the activity by demonstrating the functions and optional information displays of the Social Explorer 2002 Carbon Release map.

Developing the Lesson

Once students have an understanding of the Social Explorer interactive map, provide time for them to explore the map and answer the questions on the Activity 1 web page. Suggest to students that they may want to zoom into each region when they are comparing carbon emissions, population density, and median household income layers.

As a whole group, review student answers to the questions. Use one computer with a projector when doing this in order to further explore the data – especially in cases where students have interpreted the data differently. Students should see that there is a correlation among carbon emissions, population density, and median household income data, but be sure to clarify the concept that a correlation does not mean there is a cause and effect relationship. Challenge students to provide possible reasons for these correlations. Ask them if they have identified other variables which show a positive correlation with carbon emissions (e.g., urban population, foreign born etc.).

Assessing Student Learning

Create a document, media presentation, or Social Explorer presentation that provides an overview of spatial patterns of carbon emissions across the United States and other variables (socioeconomic or demographic) which are positively correlated with those patterns.

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