THE BLOG
05/29/2014 04:04 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2014

The New Space Race

The Obama administration's ConnectED Initiative, which began in 2013 with the goal of bringing every American student into the digital age, has just gotten a whole lot more robust with its announcement of a pledge from ESRI to provide a free ArcGIS Online account to all of the nation's 115,000 public schools. This will have a profound effect not only on the ability of American students to map information, but also on their capacity to transform the world around them. When ESRI gave students at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles access to ArcGIS software, they mapped data on the differences that exist between their inner-city neighborhood and wealthier areas of greater LA. Highlighting the disparities in everything from per-student funding and graduation rates to exposure to visual pollution and brownfield sites, those high school students realized their power as community activists, with their work ending up in venues ranging from TEDx to National Geographic.

Putting ArcGIS in the hands of America's students, in other words, will give them not only a new, spatially oriented way of understanding the world around them, but also a powerful means of pressuring for change. Our youth have long remained an underutilized resource when it comes to reform, even though many of the disparities in the U.S. fall disproportionately on young people. With ArcGIS Online, America's students will soon learn the real leverage they have. Look at how our youth, learning about the hazards of smoking in school, became a major force in getting adults to quit. GIS may have a similar effect. As students use this tool to learn about the problems that remain unaddressed in their communities, those responsible for letting things languish may soon find themselves shamed into responding by their own children.

Making ArcGIS Online available to every American school will also have enormous educational value. As Enrique Legaspi of the i.am.angel Foundation puts it, "GIS maps are part of a new feature of education, getting students to think critically, collaborate meaningfully, and ask the right questions to design real solutions" to challenges in their communities. No longer will students have to work on a made up problem or a hypothetical situation that has little relevance to their lives. GIS will allow students to address problems that matter to them and to tackle situations that exist in their own neighborhoods. And it will enable teachers to geo-locate the knowledge that they convey in class, showing their pupils where to look for examples of theirs lessons in their own backyards.

STEM education will benefit as well from having ArcGIS Online in every school. "GIS is an incredible tool to make STEM happen," continues Legaspi, "exploring information with maps and coordinating data to transform the way students learn about science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics." Students with a strong logical-mathematical intelligence have always done well in the STEM fields, but with science, engineering, and math now so central to our innovation-oriented economy, we need to find ways for students with other forms of intelligence to prosper in the future. GIS can facilitate that. It makes data visual and spatial, giving students who have other forms of intelligence and who struggle with the math and language bias of American education a more accessible way of understanding and manipulating data and discovering new ideas and strategies as a result.

As so often happens in the digital age, teachers may find themselves lagging behind their students in using this tool. ESRI does have an extensive online training program, with many free courses, to help educators overcome that knowledge gap, but helping teachers understand the relevance of this software to virtually every field should remain a priority in fully utilizing ESRI's gift, estimated at roughly $1 billion. Universities should play a role here as well. Most colleges of education sit in institutions that have GIS expertise on their faculties and familiarizing aspiring teachers with digital mapping technology should become as important a skill as the use of other online tools and digital media. At the same time, research on the impact that these tools have had on students' learning and on their engagement with their communities remains something that universities seem well prepared to do.

Nearly 60 years ago, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. started a race to see which country would dominate outer space, leading to extensive investment not only in scientific and technological research, but also in educating American students in what we now call the STEM fields. Now, the great challenge before us lies not in outer space, but in the space of this earth, with its rapidly changing climate and ecosystems. To address this new challenge, we will need not only a new kind of STEM education, one focused on sustainability and resiliency, but also new kind of space race, with technology that helps us understand the consequences of our actions on the planet and on particular places and people. GIS is that technology, and with ArcGIS in the hands of every American student, who knows -- as happened in the last space race -- what great things we can accomplish.

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design, at the University of Minnesota.