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.

Latest posts

Transforming the SLC Library Towards Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

This summer, our team of five program assistants at Be the Change Earth Alliance (BTCEA) were tasked with Student Leadership for Change (SLC) revisions. We wanted these lessons to match our important values of justice, anti-racism, anti-oppression, and diversity.

As we looked through the lesson plans, we noticed some things that didn't feel right. For example, some resources in the lesson plans spoke about BIPOC communities from a white person’s perspective, instead of someone in that community. Some lesson plan’s only included BIPOC perspectives 3-4 pages into the workbook, positioning them as something of an after note. We also identified some outdated language, and had critiques around the general structure of some of the lesson plans, feeling they could be more oriented around anti-oppression and anti-racism than they currently are. We wanted to change this and make sure the lessons respect and centre the perspectives of the people they talk about. Social justice and environmental justice are intrinsically linked. We understood that the content we offer to educators must not only empower students but also emphasize that climate and environmental justice must include all other fights for justice.

Exploring Climate Joy in Activism

Being engaged in climate action can sometimes feel like a never ending doom scrolling cycle, characterized by images of fire, floods, and destruction. Moments of righteous anger can translate into action, but the overwhelming and emotionally draining nature of the climate crisis often makes that action unsustainable. This burnout can especially be seen among youth organizers, teenagers who should be in one of the most carefree periods of their lives. Climate change’s mind boggling scale, rapid timeline, and existential consequences is understandably difficult to process.

Combating the urban heat island impact through community engagement

About the UHI

Urban areas create novel conditions for humans and wildlife by modifying the local climate; one example that is becoming more prominent is the Urban Heat Island (UHI) Effect, as we saw in the 2021 heat domes in BC. The UHI effect occurs in cities as buildings and paved surfaces trap heat more effectively than natural landscapes. Moreover, cities produce their own heat from sources such as vehicles (Urban Heat Island Effect, n.d.). The heat stress exacerbated by climate change and the UHI effect poses a risk to public health with higher mortality rates, heat strokes, dehydration, labor and learning productivity loss (Hsu et al., 2021).

Share this page

Take action

Get Involved
Become a Volunteer

Our Supporters

City of Vancouver
The Humber Foundation
TD Friends of the Environment Foundation
Environment Canada
Vancouver School Board
Delta School District
Multifaith Action Society
Surrey Schools
Burnaby School District
Jack of Hearts Productions
Abbotsford School District
Richmond School District
British Columbia
Red Cross
BC Hydro
Chris Spencer
SM Blair
Vantel Safeway
BC Gaming
Eco Canada
Electricity Human Resources Canada
Project learning Tree

Be the Change is a proud member of the Canadian Environmental Network.