Outside The Classroom: GIS Technology and Adventure Learning

With GIS technology and adventure learning, educators have an incredible opportunity to reach beyond the classroom. Students can engage hands-on in field research – and share it with their peers across the globe. At the University of Minnesota’s Learning Technologies Media Lab, we are making this possible with new applications and adventure-learning programs that inspire problem-solving of pressing environmental and social issues using GIS (geographic information systems) technology, field research, and storytelling. We are helping usher in a new era of education that brings real-world relevancy and understanding to the classroom, while enhancing 21st-century skill learning.

Outdoor Adventures

Growing up on a farm in southern Minnesota, I was fascinated with the landscape around me. I spent as much time as possible outdoors exploring, an activity I continue to enjoy today with my three-year-old son. This passion for the natural world inspired me to pursue a master’s degree in geography. It also fueled my drive to travel and learn more about the diverse environments and cultures around the globe, from my own backyard to the remotest regions of the Arctic and beyond.

Before pursuing a Ph.D. and joining the faculty at the University of Minnesota, I worked as a social studies teacher in Rochester, MN. I found it challenging to engage my students there with content and get them excited about learning using textbooks and outdated materials. With the new technologies becoming available at that time, I started to wonder why we couldn’t use those technologies to bring the real world into the classroom. This idea sparked the concept of adventure learning and ultimately led to the development of the LT Media Lab.

Our projects at the lab provide frameworks and tools for students and teachers to investigate contemporary issues, and push the envelope on technology-enhanced project- and inquiry-based learning. From the five-year, expedition-driven GoNorth Adventure Learning series which began in 2004, to new innovations like the learner-driven WeExplore platform, we create new opportunities for learning that inspire teachers and students alike.

Bringing GIS Technology and the National Trust to Classrooms

ESRI is the world’s leader in geographic information systems technology. The ArcGIS platform allows users to store, manipulate, and analyze map and geographic data from all over the planet. It paves the way for groundbreaking research and more sustainable, intelligent analysis of our planet. Now, thanks to ESRI president (and University of Minnesota alum) Jack Dangermond, the LT Media Lab will be developing a learning environment that will assist in bringing this cutting edge software to our nation’s K-12 schools for free through the ConnectED initiative.

GIS is one of the fastest growing areas of technology. We’re building a learning environment that is going to help teachers understand how to use ArcGIS in their classrooms. It is being built around content that will inspire them to go out and do real-world analysis and research. That content will come courtesy of another partner we’re proud to announce: the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Through its nationwide initiatives and website, SavingPlaces.org, the National Trust is preserving historic treasures across the United States. We’re focusing our ArcGIS educational content around a selection of these treasures, tying history to contemporary issues. One project centers on the James River in Virginia, where a local power company wants to construct a huge power line through an otherwise pristine area. In our new learning environment, students will learn about specific content areas such as this, and conduct analysis using ArcGIS. We hope to launch the new site in 2016.

Other Upcoming Projects

The LT Media Lab is gearing up for a big year. In addition to the ESRI/National Trust partnership, we’re pushing forward on some new initiatives and upgrading some of our existing technologies and programs.

WeExplore 2.0

The WeExplore learning environment allows students to easily collaborate and share inquiry-based projects with peers and teachers through a unique, visually engaging storyline. We’ve just launched a new version of WeExplore that includes a number of upgrades, including easier photo and video sharing, an improved user interface, and enhanced functionality.

Mobile Storytelling with the New GoX App

We’re bringing the adventure and experience-sharing technology we pioneered with WeExplore to the general public with GoX, a forthcoming iOS app. Users will be able to quickly build narrative photo and video sets and share them with friends and family.

The Changing Earth

This new adventure learning series will launch in 2016. It’s a four-year program that will explore sustainability and environmental issues. It’s divided into two segments based on latitude: Explore66 (the Arctic), and Explore23 (the tropics). Our goal with this project is to help create an environmentally literate and socially engaged generation of learners who are able to blend traditional and 21st century scientific and cultural knowledge to generate innovative solutions to sustain the Earth.

Tips for Using Technology to Inspire Your Students

I’m often asked by teachers, mentors, and parents how to best use emerging technologies to help motivate and inspire young people. Here are four tips that should help you navigate the fast-changing world of learning technologies.

  1. Find your passion. When asked by teachers about the best technology to use in the classroom, I typically respond, “What drives you? What’s your passion?” Choose technologies that you yourself are excited to use and share, and that fit your content area and teaching style.
  2. Choose one tool or technology that best fits your passion. After you determine your passion, choose just one tool or learning environment that will allow you to express that passion in a way that aligns with your teaching style, and then master it. It’s easy to become overwhelmed, which is why I always recommend picking just one to begin with.
  3. Be an inspiration. Choose a technology that inspires you. Your excitement will come through to your students and will inspire them in return.
  4. Use technology that encourages creativity and self-expression. An important facet of education is getting students excited about learning. Find technology that encourages students to be explorers, problem solvers, and innovators.
Aaron Doering

About the Author

Aaron Doering, Ph.D.

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