Does GIS Impact Secondary Students' Spatial Thinking Skills: Cognitive and Behavioral Studies

Authors: Bob Kolvoord*, James Madison University, Emily Peterson, American University, David Uttal, Northwestern University, Adam Green, Georgetown University, Emily Hollenbeck, Northwestern University, David Kraemer, Dartmouth University
Topics: Geography Education, Geographic Information Science and Systems
Keywords: spatial thinking, GIS, education
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/11/2018
Start / End Time: 1:20 PM / 3:00 PM
Room: Southdown, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The use of geospatial technologies by secondary students has long been thought to lead to a variety of learning benefits, including positive impacts on students' spatial thinking and problem solving skills, however few studies have focused on the impact of extended use of these technologies on either skill set. With funding from the National Science Foundation, we've conducted a multi-year investigation of the impact of the use of GIS by students participating in James Madison University's Geospatial Semester program. Secondary students complete a year-long dual enrollment course during their final year of school that focuses on problem-based learning and culminates with an extended project.

Our study compares and contrasts the spatial thinking skills of GSS students with a comparison group of students with similar characteristics, analyzing pre- and post-class performance on standard spatial thinking measures, linguistic analysis of students' proposed solution to a hypothetical problem, and fMRI analysis of a subset of both groups to assess cognitive change. We worked with a total of 209 students across both groups, and 82 participated in the fMRI protocol.

To date, we've observed improved problem solving skills in the GIS-using students, as well as stronger spatial habits of mind, especially with female students. We've also observed greater structural plasticity in regions associated with spatial thinking. In this session, we will describe our study in more detail, present our results to date and discuss their implications for greater adoption of geospatial technologies more broadly in secondary education.

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