Geospatial Thinking and the Digital Revolution

Katherine Milla, Florida A&M University
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In this exercise students watch a video and then participate in a think-pair-share activity. The activity is designed to stimulate reflection and discussion on the nature of geospatial data. The activity emphasizes the ways in which the digital revolution has transformed the way we think and gather information about spatially located features, and how we navigate to those features.

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This activity is appropriate for high school through upper level college audiences. The hypothetical scenario can be changed to match the experience of the audience.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

This activity requires no special skills. The students will watch a video in the classroom that provides the context for the activity.

How the activity is situated in the course

I use this activity for a first class meeting in my introductory GIS class. It provides a focused collaborative activity that helps break the ice and is a thought provoking introduction to the complexities of geospatial data.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

1. This activity is intended to expand students' awareness of the evolution of geospatial concepts and thinking. The video they will watch provides a brief overview of the history of map making from the rudimentary technologies of the ancient world through the advanced satellite and sensor technologies of the present.

2. This activity introduces the concepts of geographic features and feature attributes. Students are asked to consider feature locations separately from information about the features. This is one of the foudational aspects of a geographic information system.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

This activity involves many higher order thinking skills. Students must contemplate the nature of geospatial data and relationship. They must imagine realistic situations and reason their way through each situation to propose a methodology for arriving at solutions to each scenario. This involves understanding the nature and context of spatial relationships, differentiating between feature locations and feature attributes, comparing and analyzing processes and approaches through discussions and interactions with classmates, creating solutions and metacognitive summarizing of the process.

Other skills goals for this activity

This activity offers students the opportunity to improve both interpersonal and written communication skils.

Description and Teaching Materials

At the beginning of the activity play the first video of Penn State's Geospatial Revolution series (, then give the class instructions on how to proceed with the activity.

1. Show the first episode of Penn State's Geospatial Revolution series to the class.

2. Pose the following question to the students:

"Suppose you are traveling to a new city and you want some good Mexican food for dinner. You want a place that has good reviews, is close to your hotel, and is not too expensive. Discuss with one or two of your classmates how you would select a restaurant to try, and how you would navigate to it."

Allow the students enough time to discuss their ideas, but make sure that you pace the activity to ensure that they can finish it in the time allotted.

3. When the students are done discussing the first scenario, give them the following instruction

"Now repeat this exercise except suppose that there are no cell phones, no Internet and no computers".

4. Distribute the handout below to each student and instruct them to compose the essay according to the instructions.

5. Instruct each group to summarize their approaches for each scenario to the class.

6. Take some time to summarize the objectives of the activity and to distinguish the differences between geographic features and geographic attributes. See the references and resources section of this activity for links to more information.

A step by step instruction sheet and printable handout is included here Instructor Notes and Student Handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 21kB Aug22 18)

An editable PowerPoint presentation can be found here Editable PowerPoint Presentation for Geospatial Thinking Activity (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 42kB Aug22 18). This presentation can be used to guide the students through the activity. It contains a clickable link to the video and four additional slides, one for each step of the activity. The steps can be displayed to the class sequentially, allowing the instructor to display each instruction and advance to the next instruction after students complete the displayed step.


Assessment for this activity can be conducted at different levels, depending on the audience. At the most basic level students may be evaluated based on participation and effort. At more advanced levels students can be evaluated based on the content and quality of the essays. Relevant criteria for a grading rubric could include evidence of thoughtful analysis of the scenarios, level of detail of the approaches discussed, and evidence that the student can distinguish the differences between geographic features and feature attributes.

References and Resources

  • - this links to Penn State's opencourseware course GEOG160 entitled "Mapping Our Changing World". This link discusses the difference between geographic features and feature attributes. The entire course is free and open to the public.
  • Essentials of Geographic Information Systems; Michael Shin, Jonathan Campbell and Nick Burkhart; FlatWorld, ISBN 978-1-4533-9080-1. An earlier, open source version of this introductory textbook is available for download here