Teach the Earth > Teaching Methods > Teaching with GIS in the Geosciences

Teaching with GIS in the Geosciences

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This material was originally created for Starting Point:Introductory Geology
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.
Teaching with GIS titlebar image


Created by Brian Welch, Dept. of Environmental Studies, St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN

What is GIS?

GIS = Geographic Information Systems

GIS represent a collection of methods (usually as computer software) to collect, organize, analyze, and present spatial data. At the introductory level, we can consider the broader concepts of GIS to include any methods that develop and present quantitative spatial relationships within a data set. This broad definition allows us to introduce the resources used to create such relationships without necessarily using advanced GIS hardware/software.

Learn more about GIS

More about Spatial Relationships in Geoscience


Why use GIS within introductory geoscience courses?

Spatial data and maps are so integral to the geosciences that we often forget that new students may not realize their importance or how the underlying individual data points are converted to a broad spatial form. The increasing use of remote sensing data and computer databases in the geosciences makes it more important than ever to discuss the basics of spatial data collection, organization and map preparation in our courses, particularly at the introductory level.

While modern GIS techniques are often too hardware/software intensive for an introductory class, we can still introduce GIS fundamental concepts: data collection; datums and projections; gridding/contouring methods; and cartographic concepts that are critical for higher level GIS applications. In addition, it is also important to recognize the usefulness of GIS as a tool to create geoscience content that can enrich the student learning experience without introducing the GIS methods used to develop the maps, graphs, reports, etc.
More on why to use GIS


How do I use GIS within introductory geoscience classes?

Many of us already use GIS data sources and products in our classes: e.g. an online map of recent earthquake events, geologic maps, satellite imagery. When appropriate, it can be helpful to introduce the students into the data collection, processing, and presentation techniques used to create the maps as these skills form the foundation of good GIS practices. We can also send the students to online GIS/geology resources to create maps of their own.
Learn more about how to use GIS in geoscience classes


The inclusion of GIS at the introductory level is often omitted due to perceived hardware/software knowledge either on the part of the instructor or the students. There are numerous options to sidestep limited resources within the classroom, lab, or campus.
Learn how to overcome barriers to using GIS


An excellent way to introduce GIS concepts to students and to develop the instructor's GIS skills is for the instructor to develop and incorporate topic-specific maps into lectures, exercises, and exams.
Learn how to create topic-specific maps


Examples of Using GIS in Geoscience Education

Examples – A collection of examples that use GIS tools or illustrate GIS concepts that are designed for use in introductory geoscience classes.

Online GIS Resources – A collection of online GIS tools, data sets, and maps for use in class, lab, or exercise.


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