The Impact of GIS Use on High School Students' Spatial Thinking: Cognitive and Behavioral Measures

Authors: Bob Kolvoord*, James Madison University, David Uttal, Northwestern University, Emily Peterson, American University, Adam Green, Georgetown University, David Kraemer, Dartmouth University
Topics: Geography Education, Geographic Information Science and Systems
Keywords: GIS, spatial thinking, geography education, education
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 9:55 AM / 11:35 AM
Room: 8224, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Does geospatial technology use by secondary students generates learning benefits? The positive impact on students' spatial thinking and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) problem solving skills has long been assumed, but with little supporting evidence. Few studies have focused on the impact of the use of these technologies on either skill set. With National Science Foundation support, we've conducted a multi-year, in-depth cognitive and behavioral study of the impact of the use of GIS by participants in James Madison University's Geospatial Semester (GSS). High school (secondary) students complete a year-long concurrent enrollment course that focuses on GIS and problem-based learning and culminates with an extended project of the student's choice. Our study examines the spatial thinking skills of GSS students compared to a group of students with similar characteristics, analyzing pre- and post-class performance on standard spatial thinking measures, language analysis of students' proposed solution to a hypothetical problem, and an fMRI analysis of a subset of both groups to assess cognitive change. Our study includes 209 students across both groups, and 82 participants in the fMRI protocol. To date, we've observed improved STEM problem solving skills in GSS group, increased use of spatial language as well as stronger spatial habits of mind, especially with female students. We've also observed greater recruitment of spatial areas of the brain for traditionally non-spatial tasks in GSS participants . In this session, we will share our results to date and discuss their implications for greater adoption of geospatial technologies in secondary education

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