June’s GIS Ambassador: Paul Hackl

June 19, 2020 Angela Alexander

Paul Hackl, a teacher from Riverdale Collegiate in Toronto is this month’s honorary GIS Ambassador. Find out how’s he’s inspired former students to study GIS in their post-secondary studies.

June’s honorary GIS Ambassador of the month is high school teacher Paul Hackl from Riverdale Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario. He was nominated by a former student, Vai Teng Law, who’s now a GIS analyst in the Geoinfrastructure - Community Maps group at Esri Canada.

Vai approached me a few months ago to tell me how excited she was to see one of her favourite high school teachers – Mr. Hackl at the Esri Canada GIS for Education and Research Conference. She told me his geography classes opened a window into GIS and mapping for her and other students at the school.

This blog post will focus on the work Paul is currently doing with his students and the influence he’s had on some of his past students to study GIS in their post-secondary studies. We had the opportunity to catch up with him and chat with some of these Riverdale alumni.

Paul at the Esri Canada office earlier this year.

It was great to hear that Paul has had such an impact on these young peoples’ lives. We have worked with him for many years through OAGEE Conferences, the Toronto Urban Studies Centre (TUSC), and the Toronto District School Board PD day ArcGIS workshops. He’s always been a pleasure to work with and we know firsthand that he’s been a great supporter of GIS use in K-12 education.

Paul, what have you been doing this school year with your students?

This year, my grade 12 World Issues students used ArcGIS Online for a large exploratory project on the geopolitical roots of conflict in various countries around the world. The learning curve was steep but short and the results were very good.

A grade 12 student in Paul’s class who chose Yemen for their geopolitical roots of conflict project.

I am hoping to do more assignments like this in the future, as the student feedback has generally been positive and they all liked the creative freedom and layout flexibility offered by ArcGIS StoryMaps.

Why do you think you’ve been successful in influencing your students to go down the GIS education route?

I have been using ArcGIS for years, trying to expose as many students as possible to the technology and its possibilities. Every year, I make a point of taking all of my grade 12 students for a tour of Ryerson University and getting them into the undergraduate GIS lab for a half-day of hands-on experience instructed by a professor. At least one or two students sign up for the Geography Program at Ryerson as a result of the field trip and go on to work in a GIS-related career.

What did you think when I first approached you about highlighting you in a blog post?

I was excited and honoured. Thank you Vai. She was such a great student and her classmates were equally impressive. As a group, they really pushed me to become a better teacher by challenging what we did, questioning common wisdom and improving the assignments and activities we did in class.

Paul’s Influence on past students - Riverdale Alumni

Simone Hodgson
Riverdale Class of 2010
BA, Geography (Urban Systems) & Sociology, McGill University
MUP, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Urban Planning & Community Planning

Feli Ferrier
Riverdale Class of 2008
BES, Geography and Environment, University of Waterloo

Vai Teng Law
Riverdale Class of 2007
BA, Geographic Analysis, Ryerson University
Applied Digital Geography and GIS Certificate, Ryerson University

What courses did you take with Mr. Hackl?

I took two classes with Mr Hackl, World Issues and Environment and Resource Management, both in Grade 12. I knew him before then, however, since he taught my older brother in a number of classes as well.

I cannot remember the classes I took with Mr. Hackl, but he was always an inspirational figure on geography and environmental issues and generally making this world a better place. He for sure was the reason I pursued my education in Environmental Studies and pursued a GIS Planning Career at the Toronto Transit Commission. 

Grade 9 Geography
Grade 11 Environmental and Resource – My passion in environmental sustainability is thanks to Paul. His class taught me so much about global environmental issues at such a young age and how small actions we do as individuals can help and I still value these principles.
Grade 12 World Issues – This class was the first to introduce me to GIS software, we had small assignments using ArcGIS Desktop.  We also took a field trip to Ryerson University where a professor showed us spatial analysis demos.  This is also how I ended up pursuing the Geographic Analysis program at Ryerson University.

How did he make the class interesting and engaging? What type of activities, assignments were you given that made it great?

So many of the assignments and activities we did in Mr. Hackl’s classes were interesting and relevant to my later studies. He was always really great at bringing the “real world” into the classroom and making learning tangible and concrete. I credit his teaching style for igniting my passion and interest in the built and spatial environment, as well as urban planning. Some examples of activities we did in his classes include:

  • Reading current news articles (from common news sources like the Toronto Star or CBC) and critically analyzing them
  • Critiquing different maps and the way information is presented to us (highlighting the inherent power that lies within maps)
  • Designing eco-friendly homes using recycled material to think about green building and architecture (e.g. geothermal energy, radiant heat flooring, double-paned windows, etc.)
  • Watching videos, or using other media, to explain more difficult concepts and to keep us engaged and interested in current events

Mr. Hackl was extremely engaging and always made you genuinely care about the issues we were discussing.

Special speakers and presentations, hands on projects, debates and field trips.  He would find simple everyday things and turn them into a lesson.  For example, he showed us how to make a cup of coffee from start (beans) to end (brew) while teaching us all the impacts (farming, agriculture, trade, commodities) that goes into a single cup of coffee.  Then we would be given the option to choose anything we were interested in to research.

What about GIS and mapping sparked the interest for you?

Maps are a way of transporting a person to a new place, and can help you learn about that place's history, people, cultures, etc. all without physically being there. There is so much knowledge and power within maps and uncovering this was one of the main reasons I decided to pursue geography in my undergrad and then ultimately I went into urban planning.

Geography and the environmental aspect really drew in my interest, as well as eco-tourism.


I was interested in GIS when I realized it was more than just maps for location and navigation. I was never good with numbers or math growing up and GIS was a unique way of analyzing data and making it fun.I enjoy taking large “intimidating” datasets and interpreting it into visualizations and analytics that help me understand it better.

What are you currently doing professionally and how do you use GIS in your work?

I currently work as a Project Manager in Community Engagement at Bousfields Inc., a planning, urban design, and community engagement consulting firm. I work with mostly developers, but some institutions as well, to help them engage the public and local stakeholders around their planning and development projects.

While I don't use GIS through my job, the skills I picked up in GIS courses in undergrad and grad school, definitely inform all of the projects I work on. I often look at neighbourhood demographics and census data to better understand the areas and neighbourhoods within which we are engaging; doing so really helps us understand and shape our approaches to communicating and consulting with the community, so that they can be more thoughtful and useful. The ability to think critically about spatial data, and what indicators you use to analyze and understand a place, are incredibly useful skills that I use on a daily basis.

I work at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). I started here during my first co-op placement in university.  I was originally hired as a co-op student to review development plans and assess their impact on public transit. As an avid public transit user and supporter, it was very rewarding to be a part of integrating development while supporting a more environmentally sustainable way of getting around the city.

I also worked for a short time as a GIS analyst at the City of Toronto, helping coordinate roadwork to minimize impact and costs for the City through GIS. A decade later I am still working for a company I love, however, in a different field entirely (HR), which goes to show how GIS is applicable in so many fields and can lead you down so many career paths.

I currently work at Esri Canada as a GIS Analyst in the Geoinfrastructure - Community Maps department working closely with municipalities to build an authoritative basemap.  I use GIS everyday, as my job involves getting data from different sources and formats and making sure all the layers come together in creating and updating the basemap.  

What advice would you give to students who are interested in GIS?

The advice I would give any student of GIS is to, as much as possible, go in person to visit these places that you are mapping and analyzing. For me, the best learning and insight has come from both researching and studying a place, as well as having the opportunity to experience it. It's that in-person experience that really connects you to the work, helping you to gain a deeper understanding of it and ultimately producing better outcomes. 

My best advice to students is not to be extremely worried about what specific education path to take, as there is always time to switch gears and learn more and go after what you are passionate about. Afterall, learning is a lifelong journey.

GIS is so diverse that it has given me the opportunity to explore different fields such as health and the environment.  There is so much room for creativity in GIS so just find what interests you.

Thank you to the Riverdale alumni for sharing their education backgrounds and advice with us. Most of all, thanks for sharing the influence that Paul has had on your academic and professional lives.

Paul, we look forward to our continued work together. We are grateful that there are educators like you out there who have such a positive and profound impact on their students. We give you props for your dedication and energy in providing a great learning experience to all those young people who are lucky to take a class with you!

Read more about educators and GIS Ambassadors who are doing great work in supporting the use of GIS in K-12 education.

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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