The Power of Maps: GIS in Environmental Education

What is GIS?

A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer-based tool used to analyze and visualize data that contains location information, known as geographic or geospatial data. For example, global population data is connected to a location so it could be visualized in a GIS by creating a map. One of the key strengths of maps is their ability to summarize and display a large amount of geographic data in a visually-appealing way, which makes it much easier to identify any patterns and trends in the data.

GIS has numerous applications in fields that involve environmental work, from natural resource management and conservation to climate change analysis. Many complex environmental problems require a data-informed approach, where GIS can play an important role in finding spatial relationships and visually presenting these results. However, it’s important to note that GIS is only a tool designed for a specific type of data. While GIS and maps are ideal at handling geographic data, alternative tools like spreadsheets and graphs may be much better suited to other types of data like numerical data.

GIS in Environmental Education

There are a number of ways GIS can be integrated into environmental education to support students’ learning in the classroom. A few ideas are presented below:

1. Interpreting maps.

Retrieving high-quality maps from online sources, such as interactive climate impact maps or natural hazard maps, can provide students with the opportunity to practice their map interpretation skills. 

The following questions may be useful to consider during this activity:

  • How does the map’s legend help with decoding symbols and colours on the map?
  • Does the map use a small-scale (covering a large geographic area) or a large-scale (covering a small geographic area), and how does this impact the amount of detail shown?
  • How clearly does the map convey information? Could this have been achieved by using other visualizations like a graph or chart?
  • What spatial patterns and trends can be observed by looking at the map?

2.Storytelling with maps.

Considering the wide range of GIS applications, there are many areas where maps have been used to tell stories, including natural disaster evacuations, wildlife conservation, and archaeology findings. Students could find a map on a topic that interests them through independent research or from a collection like ArcGIS Story Maps Gallery and present it to the class. The presentation might involve describing the context and background story of the map, as well as its purpose and how visual features are used to communicate the story.

3. Mapping projects.

A more involved GIS project may have students researching data sources and creating their own maps on a topic of interest. GIS software like ArcGIS, QGIS, and Google Earth offer many advanced features to assist with this task. Alternatively, for a simpler approach, Google Sheets and Excel have built-in tools to create maps. These may be limited in their map creation capabilities but have the advantage of being easier to use for those who are less familiar with GIS.

To summarize, GIS is a powerful tool for professionals who utilize geographic data that can also be explored by environmental educators to teach valuable data analysis and mapping skills to students in an engaging and interactive way.

To learn more & teach about Public Health, check out our Action Pack on the topic here.

To learn more about Environmental Justice, check out our Action Pack on the topic here.



Climate Impact Lab (2023). Climate Impact Map.

Esri. ArcGIS StoryMaps Gallery. Esri Documentation.

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