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Modernizing Geography with ArcGIS: No pencils required

Modernizing Geography is a new blog series that highlights how ArcGIS can bring common geography assignments to life. The first post will feature how you can drop the pencils and paper maps and opt for an enlightened version of the “The Map of Canada” activity.

As a parent of a grade 9 student, I have a unique opportunity this year to see of how students are learning about Canadian Geography. Last week, my daughter came home with a geography assignment that involved adding capital cities, major bodies of water and the Major Cultural Regions of Indigenous Peoples to a paper map of Canada. It made me think why are grade 9 geography students still drawing and colouring paper maps when mapping software is available to educators across Canada at no cost? And how can we deepen the learning that is happening in geography classrooms in 2022?

This is the inspiration for this new blog series called Modernizing Geography with ArcGIS. We want to provide examples of how to integrate ArcGIS into common geography/social studies assignments, making these activities more relevant and educational. In addition, you will see how Concepts of Geographic Thinking can be applied using ArcGIS to make geography more engaging.

Student working on a geography assignement on her computer.

Engage students in learning about geography using ArcGIS.

Let’s begin with exploring Canada’s geography and creating a Map of Canada! We made these activities interesting, interactive, and modern by integrating ArcGIS Online – a tool that fosters critical and spatial thinking and promotes inquiry and data literacy.

ArcGIS Online Oceans basemap.

An ArcGIS Online web map of Canada with the Oceans basemap.

Let's Discover Canada (A first look at Canada)

In this quick introductory ArcGIS Online activity, students will explore Canada’s capital cities, major geographic features like the Great Lakes and the Rocky Mountains. They will also use the measure tool to view distances between cities and change the basemap to see Canada in different perspectives and find locations of interest. Time required: 15-20 minutes

Things to consider as you go through this activity:

Q1: What do you notice about where the majority of Capital cities are located in Canada?

Q2: Where are the major mountain ranges located in Canada?

Q3: Where are the major bodies of water located in Canada?

Q4: Where are the different regions of Canada located and what provinces/territories are included in them? Western Canada, the Prairies, the Maritimes, Central Canada, Northern Canada

Q5: What part of Canada do you live in and what is geographically unique about it?

A map of Canada showing the Measure tool in action

A map showing the Measure tool in action.

Exploring Canada’s Geography
In this activity, you will explore and analyse Canada's climate, Canada's ecology (ecozones), population density (2021), Canada's landforms, and Canada's federal elections (2000-2021).

Are you looking for something more?

GIS: A Tool for Inquiry
How can you use GIS as a tool for inquiry? Explore this story map to see one example.

Other Geography activities can be found on Esri Canada’s K-12 Resource Finder.

We want to hear from educators

You can share activities that you want to update with ArcGIS. Our group can support you with ideas and suggestions. Email us at

New to ArcGIS Online?

If you are new to ArcGIS Online, educators can request an account for themselves and their students at

Explore the Esri Canada K-12 Resource Finder to find other resources for your class.

Check out the following beginner resources to get started with ArcGIS Online:

For Educators - Let’s get started with ArcGIS Online

Explore the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

For Students – Enroute with ArcGIS Online

Want to learn more?

Discover Story Maps


Creating ArcGIS Dashboards 

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here. 

About the Author

Angela Alexander is a K-12 Education Specialist in the Esri Canada Education and Research group. She has over 15 years of experience working with educators across Canada. Angela focuses on producing geographic information system (GIS) and curriculum-specific resources, and conducting and creating custom workshops for educators. She manages the GIS Ambassador Program and is the Technical Chair for the annual Skills Ontario GIS competition. Angela also writes monthly posts for the Esri Canada Education and Research blog, highlighting K-12 educators and partners, new ArcGIS resources and GIS-related events.

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