Geographic information systems (GIS), once used predominantly by experts in cartography and computer programming, have become pervasive in everyday business and consumer use. This unit explores GIS in general as a technology about which much more can be learned, and it also explores applications of that technology. Students experience GIS technology through the use of Google Earth on the environmental topic of plastics in the ocean in an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The use of this topic in GIS makes the unit multidisciplinary, incorporating the physics of ocean currents, the chemistry associated with pollutant degradation and chemical sorption to organic-rich plastics, and ecological impact to aquatic biota.
Students take part in a hypothetical scenario that challenges them to inform customers at a local restaurant of how their use and disposal of plastics relates/contributes to the Great Pacific garbage patch (GPGP). What students ultimately do is research information on the plastics pollution in the oceans and present that information as a short, eye-catching newsletter suitable to hand out to restaurant customers. This activity focuses on teaching students to conduct their own research on a science-technology related topic and present it in a compelling manner that includes citing source information without plagiarism. By doing this, students gain experience and skills with general online searching as well as word processing and written and visual communication.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is an intriguing and publicized environmental problem. This swirling soup of trash up to 10 meters deep and just below the water surface is composed mainly of non-degradable plastics. These plastic materials trap aquatic life and poison them by physical blockage or as carriers of toxic pollutants. The problem relates to materials science and the advent of plastics in modern life, an example of the unintended consequences of technology. Through exploring this complex issue, students gain insight into aspects of chemistry, oceanography, fluids, environmental science, life science and even international policy. As part of the GIS unit, the topic is a source of content for students to create interesting maps communicating something that they will likely begin to care about as they learn more.
Projections and coordinates are key advancements in the geographic sciences that allow us to better understand the nature of the Earth and how to describe location. These innovations in describing the Earth are the basis for everything that is done in a GIS framework. Shape of the Earth is a critical starting point because in fact the Earth is not round but rather a more complex shape called a geoid. Coordinate systems are often referenced to a particular model shape of the Earth, but many different formats exist because not all coordinates work equally well in all areas. While projections and coordinates are abstract concepts in themselves, students eventually find them interesting because 1) it causes them to challenge their current ideas of the Earth's shape and 2) it is much easier to visualize these ideas for learning through interactive GIS such as Google Earth.
Cryptids, creatures of questionable existence, are used as a source of data to guide students into the creation of their own GIS data layer in Google Earth. The activity serves the purpose of a tutorial to teach students how to make data layers with a simple subject. Then they use that skill on other topics such as plastics in their neighborhood.
Geographic information systems (GIS) are important technology that allows rapid study and use of spatial information. GIS have become increasingly prevalent in industry and the consumer/internet world in the last 20 years. Historically, the basis of GIS was in mapping, and so it is important to understand the basis of maps and how to use them as well as why they are different from GIS. In this lesson, students learn the value of maps, how to use maps, and the basic components of a GIS. They are also introduced to numerous GIS applications.
Students complete a self-guided exercise in worksheet format combined with Google Earth that helps them explore practical and observable differences between different projection and coordinate systems. The activity improves their skills in using various Google Earth features.
Through an adult-led field trip, students organized into investigation teams catalogue the incidence of plastic debris in different environments. They investigate these plastics according to their type, age, location and other characteristics that might indicate what potential they have for becoming part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). Students collect qualitative and quantitative data that may be used to create a Google Earth layer as part of a separate activity that can be completed at a computer lab at school or as homework. The activity is designed as a step on the way to student's creation of their own GIS Google Earth layer. It is, however, possible for the field trip to be a useful learning experience unto itself that does not require this last GIS step.
In a student-led and fairly independent fashion, data collected in the associated field trip activity are organized by student groups to create useful and informative Google Earth maps. Each team creates a map, uses that map to analyze the results, adjusts the map to include the analysis results, and then writes a brief summary of findings. Primarily, questions of fate-and-transport of plastics are are explored. If data was gathered in the field trip but the teacher does not desire to do the mapping activity, then alternative data presentation and analysis methods are suggested.
Students learn about coordinate systems in general by considering questions concerning what it is that the systems are expected do, and who decided how they look. They attempt to make their own coordinate systems using a common area across all groups and compete to see who can make the best one. Then they analyze why it is that some systems work better than others and consider what those observations mean for evaluating and choosing geographic coordinate systems commonly available today.