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Teaching strategies and curriculum for spatial literacy

Occam's Razor
Occam's Razor
Danny M. Vaughn, Ph.D., CMS


Earth and Environmental Systems Science (EESS) is multidisciplinary and seeks to identify, measure, analyze, and ultimately understand natural and man-induced processes affecting changes in the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere. EESS is process driven which requires a basic understanding for the physical, chemical, and biological elements affecting change. It requires an understanding for three principal branches of science which include: chemistry (e.g. chemical composition of Earth materials and basic chemical reactions that occur among them), physics (e.g. physical/mechanical laws and processes), and biology (e.g. understanding life-sustaining processes, habitats, and natural environments necessary for survival and the location of food and water sources, etc.). It follows that EESS is an effective bridge connecting these three major branches of science.Numerous active learning components are listed that center around an experiential, project-based learning program designed to provide students with the necessary foundations in science that are required to advance to joint research ventures with local, regional, state, and national level agencies. An ultimate goal is to provide a curriculum with the foundations that will lead to sustained employability and career advancement. A need to understand multi-disciplinary science is reinforced through investigative learning that focuses on observation, discovery, a structured process of inquiry (the scientific method), computation, analysis, and summary. The uniqueness and power of this approach to learning is in melding the traditional science curriculum with geospatial technology (remote sensing/digital image processing, geographic information systems, global positioning systems, and cartography).

A testable hypothesis

1. By developing an active learning program consisting of traditional science curriculum's coupled with geospatial technology (remote sensing, geographic information systems, global positioning systems, and cartography) and culminating with non-traditional, experiential, project-based learning, students will develop a more comprehensive understanding for the principal applied elements of chemistry, physics, biology, basic quantitative analysis, Earth, and environmental sciences.

2. By applying computer-assisted, geospatial technology in geospatial modeling, students will develop a measurable level of competence in interdisciplinary sciences. Visual identification, interpretation, and analytic processing of information will reinforce learning through a combination of rote, inquiry, observation, discovery, data collection (library, Internet, and field studies), computation, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and summary. It follows an understanding for the interrelationships between natural and human processes acting upon Earth phenomena will also enhance a student’s understanding for the associative nature of multiple variables acting throughout the natural environment.

Active Learning Components Focusing on Inquiry, Observation, Discovery, Data Collection, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation, and Summary.

• Cooperative learning: groups and teams.

• Debate a controversial issue.

• Case-based analytic discussions.

• Team projects.

• Paired assignments.

• Library and on-line Internet research activities.

• Field experiences, observation, taking notes, forming questions, hypotheses, collecting applicable data through measurements, analysis of data, formulation of summary statements and conclusions.

• Analyzing charts, graphs, and data followed by oral discussions (small groups gradually moving to an entire class interacting as a team).

• Student-directed forums (on-line/in class).

• Subjective written exams.

• Index of Learning Styles (ILS) used to assess active/reflective, sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and sequential/global learning.

• Project-based, experiential learning.

Communication Skills

• Oral organizational preparation (group planning, outline discussions, individual assignments, time allocation).

• Debates.

• Informal and formal presentations.

• Small group discussions.

• Group on-line forums.

• Interviews with agencies, practicing professionals, potential employers.

• Oral examinations on concepts, principles, and developing basic levels of competence (scaffolding hierarchy leading to measurable levels of oral competence).

• Pro/con arguments prior to and following a debated issue.

Written Skills

• Skills developing good note taking (derived from listening skills, classroom lectures, and data collection procedures).

• Formulating significant questions (derived from discovery through field observations) leading to developing formal written hypotheses.

• Developing written proposals for work projects (agency assisted).

• Comprehensive summary reports (individual and/or group) on projects.

• Written subjective testing focusing on concepts, principles, and basic levels of competence (scaffolding hierarchy leading to measurable levels of written competence).

Quantitative Skills

• Reading, interpreting, and analyzing charts, graphs (point, line, area, and volume data) and quantitative database tables.

• Basic statistical computation and analysis.

• Demonstrated competence computing and explaining length, area, and volume with ‘real world’ examples.

• Basic dimensional analysis and other applied computational procedures defined by the thematic content of a project.

Spatial Skills

Spatial literacy is an understanding, developed, and demonstrated competence for the location, distance, direction, pattern, shape, size, position, and scale of objects that take up space; and their intimate associations, as they exist about the planet Earth.

• Develop an understanding and measurable competence for spatial elements: points, lines, polygons, and volumes.

• Identify and explain relationships among and between spatial elements: Cartesian grids (1, 2 , and 3 dimensional objects), Geographic Grid, UTM grid, State Plane Coordinate grid, map projections, and their importance to connectivity, adjacency, orientation, and containment.

• Demonstrate an understanding and measurable competence for the principles of location, distance, direction, and scale.

• Demonstrate an understanding and measurable competence for the principles of spatial association (from spatial elements to spatial primitives): pattern, position, density, clustering, concentration, proximity, adjacency, boundary, network, magnitude, shape, neighborhood, region, hierarchy, size, symmetry, asymmetry, centrality, repetition, scale, space, and time.

• Explain the value of a Geographic Information System and its role in spatial analysis and literacy with an example application.

• Explain the value of Remote Sensing and digital image processing of multispectral data and its role in spatial analysis and literacy with an example application.

• Earth systems comprehension by observation, discovery, question, and analysis of the nature of interactive natural processes operating throughout the atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, and biosphere; and the impact of human behavior derived from a cultural, economic, and political perspective.

• Develop, investigate, and answer the formative questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why through a structured method of scientific inquiry.

• Establish evidence-based and defensible summaries, conclusions, and decision-making criteria that provide optimal information needed to resolve Earth and societal issues that are necessary to advance an understanding for the natural processes operating about the planet.

Spatial Modeling

1st Premise – The complex nature of Earth phenomena, coupled with a dynamic and interactive combination of natural and societal processes render it difficult to develop a comprehensive understanding for all of the variables operating within Earth and environmental systems science. An understanding for an event is dependent upon an acquired ability to measure specific variables (processes) operating in concert with objects residing within a defined geographic region, and extending over a limited, but measurable span of time.

2nd Premise – A model is a way of building a representative image of the ‘real world.’ A model serves as a means for understanding the nature of process and response relative to natural and societal phenomena.

3rd Premise – A Geographic Information System (GIS) is one instrument employed in developing an understanding for the interactive nature of energy exchanges and complex process associations between and among the spatial entities of the physical world.

4th Premise – The map, chart, graph, and multi-spectral aerial/satellite imagery have become a principal means for displaying these spatial associations. Tabular output tables link spatial objects to processes and responses that when properly identified and scientifically studied, provide an understanding for the interactive nature of events occurring throughout the four primary Earth systems.

Analytic Operations in Geospatial Analysis

• Overlay operations in which spatial data from one file can be registered and projected to another file using a common grid or mathematically derived projection. This includes both vector (point, line, polygons) and raster (a data structure generally represented by a rectangular grid, typically square polygons) spatial data.

• Cut, copy, edit, and delete data feature themes and spatial objects.

• Boolean (intersect, union, etc.) and mathematical operators, including map algebra for spatial data queries.

• Shape file operations, including creating shape files from other file formats, and exporting functions as mapped points, lines, and polygons.

• Tools to import spatial data from other file formats, e.g. TIFF, JPEG, ERDAS Imagine, ArcGIS, ArcView, etc.

• Zoom in/out functions.

• Measurement tools, such as length (segmented and total) and area with two-way conversion capabilities derived from System International (metric) to U.S. (Imperial) measurement standards.

• Creating buffer areas around point, line, and polygon spatial data for boundary analysis.

• Analytic operations, e.g. finding distances, proximity, compute density, summarize zones, histogram by zones, tabulate areas, math calculator functions, map query, neighborhood statistics, reclassify, and resampling.

• An ability to mosaic, subset, and clip both raster and vector data.

• Text and label tools.

• Line of site and visibility tools.

• Surface modeling including: contouring, area and volumetric measurements, developing 2-D and 3-D representations of nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio data types.


This is a brief outline to serve as a basic overview for a curriculum in geospatial literacy. Detailed examples are clearly required beyond this skeletal material, and the format would need to be restructured to fit within the guidelines of an agency call for proposals when applied as an exercise in experiential learning. While this brief is designed more for undergraduate level curriculum, it may also be restructured for grades 7-12. There is a definite need for this type of geospatial program at the national level.

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