Geography teachers use ArcGIS to engage students in at-home learning

June 11, 2020 Angela Alexander

ArcGIS consists of tools that can be used to explore, analyze and present data in an effective way to a larger audience. Two Ontario teachers have shared what they and their students have done using ArcGIS while learning at home to explore and understand more about COVID-19 and topics in physical geography.

Last month, a couple of Ontario teachers shared the work they’ve been doing to engage their students remotely in learning about current world issues and topics in grade 9 physical geography using ArcGIS.

This blog post will highlight Cory Munro, a geography, law and civics teacher from Saugeen District Secondary School in Port Elgin, Ontario and Christine Butler, a geography and science teacher from Pierre Elliott Trudeau High School in Markham, Ontario.

Engaging students with a variety of cool mapping activities

Cory Munro
Bluewater District School Board

The K-12 group at Esri Canada have been supporting Cory for the last 10 years. We have had the opportunity to meet him on many occasions and most recently, he was invited to present his ArcGIS work at the GIS in Education and Research Conference in March of this year.

I asked Cory to tell us what he’s been doing with his students since March.

Cory prepares his student activities at his home office.

Can you tell me about some of the activities the students have done since the school closure?

Before March Break, my grade 9 geography students were very interested in tracking the spatial spread and statistics of the Coronavirus. We had daily discussions about this in class using the John Hopkins University Dashboard and the Covid-19 Canadian Outbreak Tracker.  As we transitioned to online learning, this was a natural topic to continue with as students had some background knowledge and were engaged in the subject matter.

Once they were back at school, but at home, students were given options to complete map-related activities if they chose. Most students gravitated to completing GIS related assignments. They completed Esri Canada’s Create a COVID-19 Dashboard tutorial that allowed them to explore Canadian data.  Students were impressed with seeing data in real time and some of them shared their final dashboards with their family and friends.

While learning about physical geography, students made a swipe web app in ArcGIS Online comparing Canada's physiographic and climate regions. Students were able to quickly add the pre-made layers to a map and then create an app so they could compare the two layers. Students looked for similarities and differences in the spatial patterns of the two layers.

Physical Regions & Climate in Canada swipe app. 

“I found that the swipe map helped me to identify the similarities and differences between the climate and physical regions easier than I would have been able to otherwise. I enjoyed this way of viewing data and it was easier to see patterns between the two maps.” – Grace, grade 9 student

Since the students were interested in the topic of COVID-19 and wanted to gain more technical skills, I created an activity for them to download COVID-19 open data and explore the data in ArcGIS Online.

During live online class sessions, I led through the activity steps with video tutorials that I created for them. This gave them a good idea of what they would be doing before they were tasked to work on their own at home.

I believe that providing flexibility and choice is important with online learning, so they were given a choice to write a news report, create a news broadcast in groups, or create a story map. The goal was to get students exploring data without too many restrictions or instruction on what the findings should look like.

People Under The Age of 20 With COVID-19 in Ontario map included in this story map created by a student.

“I enjoyed it because it was quite simple and there was a lot of information to look at and it was interesting. I like mapping because you can see all the info laid out in front of you and you are constantly learning new skills.” – Sara, grade 9 student

This web map shows the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Ontario, from student Clara’s story map.

“I enjoyed this type of activity because it gave me a chance to learn a lot about what is going on in our country, our region, and our cities/towns regarding Covid-19. It gave me a better understanding about what was going on in our world today. I liked making different maps and filters to discover new information about COVID-19.” – Jenna, grade 9 student

What were some geographic/spatial thinking concepts that your kids learned/used in this activity?

In using GIS and spatial technologies, students have been encouraged to think critically. It's been important to let students have some direction in their learning and to let them explore what data is available (e.g. Living Atlas layers to explore volcanoes, earthquakes, real time weather information, etc.). The grade 9 students have been reluctant at times, and often worry about doing things wrong or not properly following steps. It's been important to try building a culture where students are allowed to explore given a set of tools. I'm always amazed at what students can produce with a little direction. Some students do require step by step instructions to be successful, but I've tried to make some pretty generic activities where there's more thinking involved. In a classroom or lab setting, it might be easier to advance more skills, but given a little freedom and some ideas or suggestions, students can figure things out. Students often don't realize that they're picking up a lot of hidden skills.

With some of these activities, students have learned how to explore data, sort data, filter data, make new data layers, download the latest statistics and learned about spatial file formats (.csv, geojson, shapefiles, etc.). Students learned to compare layers to look for spatial patterns and to think about why these patterns exist.

What is planned for the next project/activity?

A lot of times, my activities are planned as things are happening in the world. We will likely revisit COVID-19 with different data sources. We could potentially look at the world-wide spread and the impacts on countries. Students will also have options in the coming weeks to create their own maps for data collection using the Collector for ArcGIS.

For some of these activities, the content isn't as important as the skill building. As the weather gets nicer, I know a lot of students will appreciate the option of completing some field work outside. If they can take ownership of their own work and have some flexibility in collecting their own data, I think some of them can stay engaged.

In the fall, I have a project planned for my Geomatics class to use Collector for ArcGIS to drop points and collect spatial data like water levels of Lake Huron. We purchased three receivers last fall, but we were unable to use them this school year.

Engage students in learning about physical geography with story maps

Christine Butler
York Region District School Board

I recently “met” Christine when she emailed us a tech support question. I was excited to hear about the work she’s done to jazz up her grade 9 geography teaching resources using ArcGIS.

Tell us how you were inspired to use story maps in your teaching?

A few weeks after the quarantine was announced, I saw a @GIS4Teachers twitter post that interested me. Brian Beard, a teacher from Ottawa, shared a fantastic story map about Erosion that he created. He had pulled together really great content and had even attached an activity for his students to complete using Survey 123. I thought this was a really great way to present the content and also to engage with students. It inspired me to try creating my own story maps.

Christine Butler creates resources that support her students’ learning at home.

Tell us about the story maps you created.

When online learning began, we had started the Interactions in the Physical Environment unit for grade 9 geography. One of the overall expectations is to understand the interactions between natural processes and human activities. Students at our school had shown interest in the issue of plastics/microplastics in the environment. We decided to use this to focus our online learning. 

For the first week, I had students learn about the process of Erosion using Brian Beard's story map. Then I created the following story maps for students to use in the upcoming weeks of learning.

Water and Watersheds story map covering Interactions in the Physical Environment unit for Ontario’s grade 9 Geography curriculum.

The project for this unit was for students to research about microplastics in Lake Ontario and connect it to the human activities in our own watershed that flows into Lake Ontario.

What were some geographic/spatial thinking concepts that your students learned in this activity?

For the watersheds lesson, the goal was for students to understand the spatial significance of how the smallest streams in their communities are connected to the rivers that empty into Lake Ontario, and eventually the oceans. At the same time, we were also focusing on interrelationships between natural processes like watersheds and erosion with human activities like mismanaged plastic trash, which are responsible for microplastics in Lake Ontario.

What’s next?

We are now in the Livable Communities unit, where we are focusing on how the COVID-19 quarantine has created opportunities for cities to become more sustainable. Two other teachers in my department have also created story maps to deliver online learning to our students.


Thank you to Cory and Christine for sharing their work with us. We hope they will inspire other educators to get started or to continue their ArcGIS journey. Feel free to use the resources they have created in your classes. Follow them on Twitter to learn about what they are doing.

New to ArcGIS Online?

If you are new to ArcGIS Online, educators can request an account for themselves and their students at k12.esri.ca/#access. Parents can request accounts for their children using the same link.  

Looking for resources to try with your students or kids? Check out the following resources:

  • At-home learning during COVID-19 crisis and beyond
    Find out how to access ArcGIS Online so that K-12 learners can continue to ask, analyse and act on their learning from home.
  • Discover ArcGIS Online tutorial
    Learn the basics of ArcGIS Online with this quick tutorial.
  • Getting Started Path for Teachers
    Follow this beginner path to build your confidence with online mapping tools.
  • Six by Six Activity (choose your region)
    Six activities you can do in six minutes each - for ArcGIS Online beginners.
  • Getting to Know the ArcGIS StoryMaps
    Try the new ArcGIS StoryMaps builder experience.

Happy Mapping!

About the Author

Angela Alexander

Angela Alexander is a K-12 Education Resource Developer on the Esri Canada Education and Research team. She has over six years of experience working with educators across Canada. Angela is responsible for producing geographic information system (GIS) and curriculum specific resources, conducting and creating custom workshops for educators and judging and developing the question for the annual GIS Skills Ontario competition in Waterloo, Ontario. Angela has a Bachelor’s degree in Geography and Sociology from the University of Western Ontario and completed the Applied Digital Geography and GIS certificate program at Ryerson University.

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