POD Program Fuels Student Enthusiasm for STEM and GIS

By Lori Rubino-Hare, Megan Walker

Imagine 27,000 middle and high school students rolling their eyes as they are asked the dreaded, inevitable question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Then imagine 27,000 students responding to this question with answers like: “I want to work for NASA to partner with nonprofits who help schools in the Middle East implement rain water harvesting,” or, “I’d like to work with the United Nations to help train government officials in developing countries on how to use ArcGIS online to respond to natural disasters.”

Now imagine how students might learn about these GIS careers, and consider the term: Geospatial Inquiry. That’s the crux of the NSF-funded Power of Data Project, a nationally recognized professional development program that has enabled secondary teachers to increase students’ content knowledge, 21st century workforce skills, and awareness of geospatial technology careers since 2009. The POD team and NSF want to know: can this successful professional development model work at scale, across the country, to increase all students’ interests in geospatial careers?

The POD team (Nena Bloom, Emily Evans, Mark Manone, Anita Palmer, Lori Rubino-Hare, James Sample, and Brooke Whitworth) began by examining their PD programs and the literature base to identify best practices for PD and to determine key design principles of POD programs. They identified seven. They then set out to develop a way to share this information so others could replicate the POD Project in new settings to achieve similar positive results.

In July 2016 the first POD Facilitation Academy took place. Fifteen teacher educators from across the United Statesspent an entire week together near the edge of the Colorado Plateau collaborating with GIS education specialists at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz. This diverse group included educators from community colleges, middle and high school classrooms, federal entities, world renowned universities, and nonprofit sectors.

They organized a trip to walk the Trail of Time at the Grand Canyon and had the chance to peer through the Pluto Discovery Telescope at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, America’s first Dark Skies City and first STEM Community. One participant noted, “We went out to the Grand Canyon and had an opportunity to talk about what we were doing [with GIS in the classroom] as we drove out there, so it was almost a two hour conversation in a spectacular part of the world. I can bring that experience back to my students.” Much of their formal learning time was spent surrounded by walls constructed of the burnt orange Moenkopi Sandstone used to form many of the buildings in historic downtown Flagstaff, including Northern Arizona University.

Led by the POD team, participants enriched their knowledge of Esri’s ArcGIS Online through a cycle they termed Geospatial Inquiry. Geospatial Inquiry requires the examination and analysis of geospatial data for the purpose of answering a question or solving a problem. This was the first design principle upon which the Academy was based, and it drove the learning.

  • POD Principle 1: Geospatial Inquiry is used for a purpose: to provide relevant, engaging, authentic learning experiences through the process of answering a question, solving a problem, or explaining a phenomenon.

As one facilitator explained, “[Geospatial Inquiry is] iterative… Data changes, and … when you look back at the solution … it might have been a good solution at the time, but when you get new data … the Geospatial Inquiry could take a totally different path and in that sense I think it's very useful to use that iterative process as you get more data, you get a bigger and bigger picture, a clearer picture. It’s important that we engage in Geospatial Inquiry for a purpose: to provide relevant, engaging, authentic learning experiences.”

Another elaborated, “The project we do this year is not going to be the same project that we do next year. It's not going to be the same topic. It will employ geospatial tools to look at something that is happening in the world …but it is a tool that we can use to look at a problem, look at a topic, and then try to understand it and hopefully come up with some kind of a solution. …It's, it's a powerful tool that can be used for projects. But it starts with a purpose.”

  • POD Principle 2: Geospatial technologies are tools that support Geospatial Inquiry: tomake sense of relationships and patterns in geospatial data and to create visual representations which can be used as evidence to support written arguments.
  • POD Principle 5: Geospatial Inquiry is socially constructed. It provides opportunities to collaborate, compare ideas with others, and receive feedback on those ideas through productive, equitable and respectful discourse. Viewing all ideas as resources can advance the knowledge of a learning community.

The example Geospatial Inquiry required participants to work together to develop natural disaster risk determinations for different regions and creatively present to stakeholders. This experience facilitated discussion about how to engage students in similar Geospatial Inquiries to support learning in different subject areas, with the help of geospatial analyses.

  • POD Principle 3: Geospatial Inquiry promotes cross-disciplinary practices and 21st century skills such as collaborating and participating in a learning community with peers to ask questions, creatively select and display appropriate geospatial data, critically analyze and interpret geospatial data, and engage in argument using geospatial data as evidence to communicate ideas to diverse audiences.
  • POD Principle 4: Geospatial Inquiry is a reflective practice. It starts from prior knowledge and experience and requires metacognition in order to develop conceptual understanding.

“The days flew by because all of it was just really good. …Working in our small groups on the Geospatial Inquiry … that was just a very engaging experience for me.” – POD Facilitator

“At the end of the week I knew so much more about how to do this kind of teaching and about geospatial technology then I did when I walked in the door on Monday.” – POD Facilitator

  • POD Principle 6: Geospatial Inquiry is iterative and sequenced over time to promote conceptual understanding of big disciplinary ideas and to scaffold technological and communication skill development.

Participants received materials to facilitate their own POD Teacher Workshops, and explored how to support teachers as they implement collaborative Geospatial Inquiries with students. One facilitator commented, “A lot of times when we expose technology in the classroom, it’s trying to replace stuff or it’s trying to show how cool the tool is…Geospatial Inquiry should improve the instruction, should improve the learning.”

Another noted, “I got a broader understanding of how Geospatial Inquiry needs to be implemented. … [Teaching for] conceptual understanding was missing from all the publications that are out there. That was really very useful to put in the hands of teachers and to relate it to the curriculum …and the standards to be met.”

Yet another said, “This isn't just one more thing on top of what I already teach. It's a better way to teach things that we've already been teaching.”

“The thing that I hear from teachers all the time is they don't have enough time to do everything they need to do for science or geography or whatever subject they’re teaching and so sometimes I feel like adding the layer of technology complicates and takes away a bit from their instructional time, but when it's done at the Academy, it's very engaging and it really can excite kids’ curiosity too. And so I feel more prepared to make that argument for teachers and have them experience it themselves so that they can see the value [in integrating geospatial technologies in the classroom]. I've always been a little hesitant about how to make this work for teachers in a way that fits into their very stretched instructional time. But getting to talk to the other facilitators, especially the teachers who are doing this all the time, was kind of nice because I could hear the types of things they were doing with their students. That they were able to manage into their kind of tight instructional day and so that was helpful as well.”– POD Facilitator

  • POD Principle 7: Engaging in Geospatial Inquiry and seeing how Geospatial Inquiry is used by professionals provides inspiration to enter STEM careers.

The POD team identified engaging in Geospatial Inquiry as a means to inspire students to enter STEM careers. They reached out to find a diverse array of GIS professionals via the AAG GeoMentorsnetwork and were overwhelmed by the positive response. Through interviews, they developed Career Spotlights. So, in addition to hands-on technology explorations and pedagogical conversations, participants expanded awareness of careers through interviews and presentations by a diverse array of GIS professionals working with the United Nations, NASA, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Facilitators discussed how these spotlights might inspire secondary students to consider occupations which utilize geospatial technologies.

“I found the Career Spotlights inspiring … they increased my understanding of how we might inspire children to be interested in STEM careers,” a participant noted. Another facilitator commented, “What I appreciated more than anything else was the diversity of the examples…. It’s always hard to get examples of careers that showcase diversity”. Another facilitator noted, “As I see various industries picking up GIS analysis and using the results to make decisions, I think that aspect alone needs to give us the impetus to include it in our curriculum. Students don't have to wait to get to college to learn this, they can very well use it much earlier on.”

The first in an assembly of partners, these teacher educators layered professional development strategies with GIS technology, charting a path to deliver an enhanced geospatial approach to curriculum for the teachers of 27,000 students. The new POD facilitators are currently planning POD Teacher Workshops across the country. They are critical partners in the design-based research study, which will allow for ongoing improvements to the POD PD materials. The research team will continue to study the factors that promote classroom implementation of Geospatial Inquiries, with the ultimate goal of improving student attitudes toward and engagement in geospatial careers.

“I had a blast. It was fun. And it was challenging. I even told [the POD team] before I left: this really was a fantastic experience. … I have been on very diverse teams with educators and scientists and researchers and you know you have different approaches and personalities and I thought the team did really well facilitating together and working together… That was pretty impressive.” – POD Facilitator

The POD team is currently accepting applications for the 2017 POD Facilitation Academy which will occur June 19-23 in Flagstaff. For more information, please visit http://www.pod-stem.org


Published Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

Written by Lori Rubino-Hare, Megan Walker

If you liked this article subscribe to our bimonthly newsletter...stay informed on the latest geospatial technology

Sign up


© 2017 Directions Media. All Rights Reserved.