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the topic is about Integrating Geospatial Technologies in an Energy UnitJournal of Geography
ISSN: 0022-1341 (Print) 1752-6868 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjog20
Integrating Geospatial Technologies in an Energy
Unit
Violet A. Kulo & Alec M. Bodzin
To cite this article: Violet A. Kulo & Alec M. Bodzin (2011) Integrating Geospatial Technologies in
an Energy Unit, Journal of Geography, 110:6, 239-251, DOI: 10.1080/00221341.2011.566344
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/00221341.2011.566344
Published online: 25 Oct 2011.
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Integrating Geospatial Technologies in an Energy Unit
Violet A. Kulo and Alec M. Bodzin
ABSTRACT
This article presents a design-based
research study of the implementation of an
energy unit developed for middle school
students. The unit utilized Google Earth
and a geographic information system (GIS)
to support student understanding of the
world’s energy resources and foster their
spatial thinking skills. Findings from the
prototype study revealed that students
increased their energy content knowledge,
and the use of geospatial technologies to
analyze data promoted students’ spatial
thinking skills. Revision of instructional
materials to support both teachers
and learners and recommendations for
designing and implementing geospatial
learning materials are discussed.
Key Words: geographic information
systems, inquiry, spatial knowledge
Violet A. Kulo is an instructional designer at the
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine,
Baltimore, Maryland, USA. Her research interests include designing and implementing
curricula supported by innovative technologies.
Alec M. Bodzin is an associate professor in the
Teaching, Learning, and Technology program
and the Lehigh Environmental Initiative at
Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania,
USA. His research interests include the design
of Web-based inquiry learning environments,
the design and implementation of inquiry-based
environmental science curricula, and the implementation of spatial thinking tools in school
settings.
INTRODUCTION
Recent education reform initiatives emphasize the significance of developing
critical thinking skills, data analysis skills, implementing real-world applications,
and utilizing the power of technology in teaching and learning (National
Research Council 1996, 2000; International Society for Technology in Education
2000; North American Association for Environmental Education 2004). Newer
interactive technologies that may hold promise in supporting science and
geographic inquiry in the classroom are geospatial technologies. Geospatial
technologies, including geographic information systems (GIS), global positioning
systems (GPS), virtual globes (such as Google Earth, WorldWind), and Webbased 2D and 3D visualizations of earth, landforms, and/or other geographic
data, allow for visual analysis of multiple layers of geographically referenced
data (Environmental Systems Research Institute 1993; Broda and Baxter 2002;
DeMers 2005). Bednarz, Acheson, and Bednarz (2006) contended that the ability
to use images and spatial technologies intelligently and critically is becoming
a requirement to participate effectively as a citizen in modern society. In fact,
K–12 educators are harnessing the power of geospatial technologies to support
standards-based geography, science, social studies, and mathematics curricula
(Kerski 2003; Holzberg 2006; Bodzin 2008; Bodzin and Cirucci 2009; Bodzin 2011).
Many writers praise the potential for geospatial technologies to enhance student
learning. Geospatial technologies can assist with inquiry-based investigations
and promote spatial thinking (Stahley 2006; Schultz, Kerski, and Patterson 2008;
Bodzin and Cirucci 2009; Bodzin, Anastasio, and Kulo forthcoming). According
to the National Research Council, “spatial thinking is the knowledge, skills,
and habits of mind to use concepts of space, tools of representation, and
processes of reasoning in order to structure problems, find answers, and express
solutions to those problems” (2006, 12–13). In fact, one essential element of
the National Geography Standards is that “the geographically informed person
knows and understands the world in spatial terms: how to use maps and other
geographic representations, tools, and technologies to acquire, process, and report
information from a spatial perspective; how to use mental maps to organize
information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context; and how
to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on earth’s
surface” (Geography Education Standards Project 1994, 34). Spatial thinking uses
representations to help us remember, understand, reason, and communicate about
properties of and relations between objects represented in space.
Geospatial technologies afford a learning environment in which students can
visually explore, analyze, and make decisions about problems in an interactive
and challenging manner (Audet and Ludwig 2000) providing authentic, inquirybased learning within the K–12 classroom environments (Bednarz and Audet
1999). Alibrandi (2002) contended that one of the most important benefits of
including a GIS among a school’s instructional technologies is that it can provide
opportunities for students to conduct research leading to viable, sustainable
communities. Students can use a GIS to solve real-life problems and to draw on
skills crucial to developing higher-order thinking and problem solving (Ramirez
1995; Sanders, Kajs, and Crawford 2002; Bodzin and Anastasio 2006; Kerski
2008).
Journal of Geography 110: 239–251

C 2011 National Council for Geographic Education
239
Violet A. Kulo and Alec M. Bodzin
Despite the promising potential of geospatial technologies to support inquiry-based learning environments, there
are a number of barriers to implementing them in the K–12
classrooms. These include technical issues pertaining to the
interface design of software, time for classroom teachers to
learn to use the software and teach it to students, lack of
existing basal curriculum materials that integrate geospatial
technologies, lack of time to develop learning experiences
that integrate easily into existing school curricula, and lack
of pedagogical content knowledge conducive to geospatial
technologies (Keiper 1998; Meyer et al. 1999; Baker and Case
2000; Sanders, Kajs, and Crawford 2002; Baker and Bednarz
2003; Bednarz 2003; Kerski 2003; Patterson, Reeve, and Page
2003; Shin 2006).
Further, there are not many studies that have investigated
the use of geospatial technologies in science classroom
instruction. Baker and White (2003) investigated whether
or not the use of a GIS to support a learning module in
science positively affects acquisition and use of science
process skills and attitude toward science and technology.
They concluded that the use of a GIS supports scientific
inquiry and problem solving and can foster complex cognitive activities by students using sophisticated computer
applications and data in an authentic learning environment.
In another study, Hagevik (2003) concluded that a GIS may
aid students in constructing concepts and in promoting
understanding of environmental content, problem solving,
experimental design and data analysis, and communicating
findings to others. In other studies, researchers concluded
that geospatial technologies can increase students’ spatial
abilities and science content knowledge (Hedley 2008;
Bodzin and Cirucci 2009; Bodzin 2011).
We developed an interdisciplinary geospatially supported energy unit for middle school students. This effort
is part of a larger science education and urban school
reform initiative to enhance the teaching and learning of
environmental issues in the school curriculum. The rapidly
growing technology of GIS has proven to be a valuable
tool in the process of understanding the environment
and of making responsible environmental decisions (Heit,
Shortried, and Parker 1991; Carrarra and Fausto 1995). GIS,
like the study of energy resources, transcends disciplinary
boundaries, integrating processes and data from the natural
and social sciences. When using spatial applications in
inquiry-based investigations, learners use evidence and
practices in the same manner as scientists (Bodzin and
Anastasio 2006). The study of energy resources relies on
environmental data. GIS provides an ideal context for the
management and presentation of such data. GIS can be used
to collect, organize, and analyze spatially referenced data
inherent to energy resources issues. Learning activities that
use GIS can be designed to require independent learning
and flexible reasoning, an essential component of both
science and geography education.
We developed the energy unit to align instructional
materials and assessments with learning goals (Wiggins
and McTighe 2005) and we designed it to be used with
240
all ability levels of eighth grade students. The unit includes
supports for curricular adaptation and educative curricular
materials, that is, materials designed to promote teachers’
pedagogical content knowledge as well as guide in-class
instruction (Ball and Cohen 1996; Remillard 2000; Davis
and Krajcik 2005). The unit takes advantage of geospatial
technologies including Google Earth and GIS to promote
student understandings of the world’s energy resources
and their impacts on the environment, energy use and
misuse practices, and ways to sustain the future of our
environment with alternative energy sources. The lessons
are designed to address common student misconceptions
and knowledge deficits about energy resources (National
Assessment of Educational Progress 1975; Holden and
Barrow 1984; Boyes and Stanisstreet 1990; Farhar 1996;
Rule 2005). As students progress through the unit, they
further develop concepts and spatial analysis skills with
every investigation.
PURPOSE OF THE STUDY
The purpose of the study was to develop an energy
unit supported by geospatial technologies and implement
the prototype unit in middle school classrooms. This
curriculum implementation study sought to answer the
following questions:
r How did the energy unit utilizing geospatial technologies help middle school students improve their
knowledge of energy resources?
r How did the energy unit utilizing geospatial technologies help middle school students improve their spatial
thinking skills?
r How did the students respond to the energy unit
utilizing geospatial technologies?
r How was the energy unit utilizing geospatial technologies revised based on learning issues that
students experienced during the curriculum implementation?
DESIGN PRINCIPLES
We used guiding design principles to develop the unit.
As Kali suggested, our design principles focus not only
on local classroom implementation, but also on more
generalized classroom learning environments (2006). The
design principles include:
r Design curriculum materials to align with the demand
of classroom contexts
r Design activities to apply to diverse contexts
r Use motivating entry points to engage learners
r Provide personally relevant and meaningful examples
r Promote spatial thinking skills with easy to use
geospatial learning technologies
r Design image representations that illustrate visual
aspects of scientific knowledge
r Develop curriculum materials to better accommodate
the learning needs of diverse students
Integrating Geospatial Technologies in an Energy Unit
r Scaffold students to explain their ideas
r Use icons that portray the real-world concept
See Bodzin, Anastasio, and Kulo (forthcoming) for detailed
explanations of each design principle.
ensure that the curriculum materials were developmentally
appropriate to meet the diverse needs of the eighth grade
students in the school and aligned to state standards. She
had prior experience using Google Earth in the classroom
but had no prior experience using a desktop GIS application
for instructional purposes.
METHODOLOGY
Research Design
This study employed design-based research methodology. According to Richey, Klein, and Nelson (2004),
design-based research methodology combines a formative
evaluation of a design and an analysis of the implementation process in naturalistic learning settings (see also
Reigeluth and Frick 1999). A primary goal of design-based
research is to improve the initial design as informed by
ongoing analysis of both the students’ reasoning and the
learning environment (Cobb et al. 2003). The evaluation
of the design is an ongoing iterative process that changes
as the design changes. Design-based research studies are
guided by partnerships (Bell, Hoadley, and Linn 2004).
Partnerships are interdisciplinary teams that may include
teachers, technologists, education researchers, and disciplinary experts who bring diverse, but relevant, expertise
to the effort. Our design partnership included science
educators, scientists, instructional designers, and classroom
teachers. We used design-based research methodology in
order to test and refine the instruction and materials
thoroughly before the school fully adopted the unit as part
of its eighth grade science curriculum. During the implementation, daily classroom observations were conducted
in five classrooms. We held daily debriefing sessions with
the teacher and weekly curriculum design team meetings
to discuss what worked well, what did not work well, and
what revisions needed to be made. We then modified the
instruction and materials accordingly.
Participants
The study was implemented in five eighth grade classes
in a middle school located in the northeast United States.
The middle school has an ethnically diverse population of
approximately 630 students, most of whom come from lowincome households. The participants included one eighthgrade science teacher and 110 students (67% Hispanic, 19%
white, 13% black, 1% Asian), and included eleven students
with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). IEPs are
educational programs customized to meet the individual
needs of students with disabilities (Strickland and Turnbull
1990). The school contains a large migratory population,
with 20 percent of the students transferring to the school
during the academic year. Nineteen percent of the students
were learning English as a second language. Based on
the state’s standardized tests, the eighth grade students
had 59 percent reading proficiency and 22 percent science
proficiency. The teacher had twelve years of classroom
science teaching experience and taught all five classes. The
teacher was part of the curriculum development team to
Implementation
The energy curriculum begins with a personal exploration of students’ energy consumption practices followed
by a series of geospatial explorations and investigations of
renewable energy sources. This is followed by explorations
and investigations of nonrenewable energy sources. In
our design partnership meetings, earth and environmental
scientists made a strong case that the instructional sequence
should first engage students with explorations and investigations of renewable energy sources to introduce important
sustainability concepts and ideas related to energy resources. We believed that having students first examine and
investigate sustainable energy solutions may ultimately
help them to think more sustainably with regards to energy
decision making. Such sustainable energy decision making
would ultimately enhance our quality of life.
In addition to using geospatial technologies to support
learning, some lessons entailed student content readings
and inquiry-based laboratories. Students used both Google
Earth and My World GIS to complete a variety of investigative learning activities to develop concepts about renewable
and nonrenewable energy resources while developing
spatial thinking skills. Table 1 outlines the instructional
sequence of the unit.
In the first geospatial lesson, students were presented
with the driving question: Where is the best place to locate
a new solar power plant? Before engaging with the activity,
the teacher provided students with an overview of Google
Earth, specifically, how to move from one solar power
plant location to another and how to use the software’s
navigation controls. Students used Google Earth to explore
five solar power plants around the world (image on the
left in Fig. 1). They measured the perimeter of each solar
power plant and examined the surrounding land cover. The
learning goals for this lesson focused on students’ abilities
to identify patterns in land cover areas surrounding solar
power plants and to examine how land areas are modified
to accommodate the development of solar power plants.
Next, students used My World GIS to analyze fourteen
global solar power plant locations (both existing and
proposed as of 2009) to determine if these locations are
optimal locations for the placement of a solar power plant
(image on the right in Fig. 1). Students examined the spatial
distribution of worldwide annual average sunshine data.
Students used the GIS map tools to obtain the latitude,
longitude, and annual average sunshine data at each solar
power plant location. Next, they analyzed annual average
sunshine data in relation to locations of the solar power
plants to determine optimal locations to build new solar
power plants.
241
Violet A. Kulo and Alec M. Bodzin
Table 1. Instructional sequence outline for the prototype energy unit.
Lesson
1
2–3
Topic
Introduction of
energy
Energy units
and energy
audit
4
Energy
concept
map
5
6
Solar energy
lab
Solar energy
7–8
Solar energy
9
10
Wind energy
Wind energy
11
Wind energy
12
Tidal energy
13
Hydroelectric
energy
Hydroelectric
energy
14
15–16
Hydroelectric
energy
17
Hydroelectric
energy
18
Nuclear
energy
Geothermal
energy
19
242
Description of Lessons
Spatial
Thinking Skills
to be Taught
Discussed energy and its everyday uses.
Discussed energy units. Calculated personal
and household energy consumption on an
energy audit spreadsheet and analyzed
consumption patterns.
Worked on the concept map. Filled in the
definition, forms, uses, and any other
information regarding the provided energy
sources (sun, moon, and earth).
Solar energy introduced. Used solar cells to
power a light bulb, music box, and small fan.
Google Earth exploration of five solar power
plants. Emphasis on similarities in land
cover and topography surrounding power
plants.
My World GIS investigation of fourteen solar
power plants. Emphasis on pattern between
annual average sunshine, latitude and
longitude, and location of power plants.
Discussed wind energy.
Google Earth exploration of seven wind farms.
Emphasis on similarities in land cover and
topography surrounding power plants.
My World GIS investigation of average wind
velocity and land use in Pennsylvania to
determine the best location to place wind
farms.
Tidal energy introduced. Google Earth
exploration of four water bodies to
determine if these would be good places to
locate tidal power plants.
Discussed hydroelectric.
Comparison
Pattern
Comparison
Analogy
Comparison
Pattern
Association
Comparison
Pattern
Google Earth exploration of five hydroelectric Hierarchy
dams. Emphasis on why dams are placed
Pattern
near population centers.
My World GIS investigation of US
Hierarchy
hydroelectric dams. Examined which rivers,
watersheds, and states different dams are
located. Querying data layers and creating
new layers introduced.
Google Earth exploration of a pumped storage Hierarchy
generating station and four hydroelectric
Pattern
dams on two rivers in Pennsylvania.
Exploration ended with a nuclear power
plant on one of the rivers as a segue to
nuclear energy.
Discussed nuclear energy.
Google Earth exploration of features of “hot
Analogy
Earth” areas. Emphasis on location of
Pattern
geothermal resources.
(Continued on next page)
The next lesson engaged learners
with the following driving question: Where is the best place to
locate a new wind farm? First, students used Google Earth to explore
five wind farms around the world
and examined land cover features,
topography, perimeter of the wind
farm area, and average wind velocity at each location (image on the
left in Fig. 2). Students identified
any characteristic patterns in the
land cover and area surrounding
those wind farms. Next, students
used My World GIS to examine
average wind velocities and land
use patterns in Pennsylvania to determine optimal locations to build
new wind farms (image on the right
in Fig. 2).
Tidal energy was explored in
the next geospatial lesson. Students
used Google Earth to explore four
large water bodies, two of which
had high tidal ranges and two that
had low tidal ranges. The tidal
range information was provided on
a pushpin in the Google Earth file.
Students analyzed the shapes of
those water bodies in relation to
their tidal ranges to determine optimal locations suitable for building
tidal power plants (image on the
left in Fig. 3). In the next lesson, students explored the physical characteristics of hydroelectric energy
power plants. They used Google
Earth to explore five hydroelectric dams around the world and
examined their locations, height,
capacity, surrounding area, and the
shape and size of the river on the
upstream and downstream sides
of the dams. Information about
location, height, and capacity of the
dams was provided on a pushpin
in the Google Earth file. Students
used the Google Earth ruler tool
to measure the widths of the dams
and the distance from each dam to
nearby population centers (image
on the right in Fig. 3).
Students then used My World
GIS to examine and analyze features of hydroelectric dams in the
United States. They queried the
GIS data and created new layers of
Integrating Geospatial Technologies in an Energy Unit
in Pennsylvania, our intent was
for students to investigate power
plants in their local context, thus
aligning instruction to our design
Spatial
principles.
Thinking Skills
Next, learners engaged with the
Lesson
Topic
Description of Lessons
to be Taught
following investigative question:
Where is the best place to locate
20
Biomass
Discussed biomass.
a geothermal power plant? In that
21
Biofuels
Used cellulase to break down cellulose from
cellulose lab
paper pulp to release the sugar component.
lesson, students used Google Earth
Lab modeled how raw materials are refined
to identify earth features that are
to process liquid fuels.
evidence of geothermal activity.
22–23
Exploring US
Compared US regional energy production.
They were presented with five
energy
Discussed US production and consumption
metropolitan areas in the northproduction
of both renewable and nonrenewable
west United States and overlays
and conenergy sources.
of areas where the earth is hot
sumption
(Fig. 5). Students examined those
24–25
Coal
My World GIS investigation of US coal
Association
metropolitan areas in relation to hot
reserves as well as coal production,
earth areas and determined opticonsumption, and population change for
mal locations to build geothermal
different countries over a 28-year period.
26–27
Petroleum
My World GIS investigation of petroleum
Association
power plants.
(crude oil)
reserves, production and consumption, and
In the next series of lessons, stupopulation change for different countries
dents used My World GIS to invesover a 28-year period.
tigate worldwide patterns of fossil
28–29
Natural gas
My World GIS investigation of natural gas
Association
fuel production and consumption
reserves, production and consumption, and
of coal, petroleum (crude oil), and
population change for different countries
natural gas (Fig. 6). Students exover a 28-year period.
amined how fossil fuel production
and consumption have changed
hydroelectric dams data for specific geographical areas that
over a recent twenty-eight-year period. They also analyzed
was further analyzed for dam characteristic patterns and
population data to investigate relationships between a
associated land use features of dam areas (image on the
country’s population and its fossil fuels consumption. In
left in Fig. 4). The activity concluded with students using
these investigations, students created a variety of new data
Google Earth to investigate specific features of a pumped
layers to examine per capita consumption and explored
storage generating station, three hydroelectric dams, and a
issues pertaining to increasing populations and the need to
nuclear power plant on two rivers in Pennsylvania (image
consume fossil fuels to support energy needs.
on the right in Fig. 4). They measured the widths of the
dams and the distance from each power plant to nearby
Data Collection
population centers. Since the students’ school is located
We implemented the study towards the end of the school
year and we were able to implement the instruction for thirty-four
days before the semester ended. We
collected data through daily classroom observations, daily debriefing sessions between the teacher
and the classroom observer, and
examination of all student artifacts. The classroom observations
included records of daily activities, teacher-student interactions,
student-student interactions and
comments, and how students interacted with the instructional maFigure 1. Google Earth image of a solar power plant and My World GIS map of
terials. During the implementac 2010
the world displaying annual average sunshine data. (Google Earth image
tion, we conducted daily debriefGoogle.)
ing sessions with the teacher that
lasted between twenty and thirty
Table 1. Instructional sequence outline for the prototype energy unit. (Continued)
243
Violet A. Kulo and Alec M. Bodzin
Figure 2. Google Earth image of a wind farm and My World GIS map of
Pennsylvania displaying average wind velocities and land use. (Google Earth
c 2010 Google.)
image
Figure 3. Google Earth images of a bay and a hydroelectric dam. (Google Earth
c 2010 Google.)
images
Figure 4. My World GIS map of the U.S. displaying hydroelectric dams and Google
Earth image of a pumped storage generating station and a hydroelectric dam.
c 2010 Google.)
(Google Earth image
244
minutes. The observer took notes
of the teacher’s comments and concerns about the instruction and materials, and suggestions of how to
modify the instructional materials
to better meet the learners’ needs.
The student artifacts included
an energy concept map, journal
entries, and written responses to
assessment items embedded in the
instructional materials. A basic energy concept map (Fig. 7) was provided to students at the beginning
of the unit. Students brainstormed
individually and added what they
knew about energy to the concept
map. Those initial concepts maps
were submitted to the teacher electronically. In the course of the unit,
students revised and updated their
concept maps periodically with
what they had learned. At the end
of the unit, students finalized their
concept maps and submitted them
to the teacher. The journal entries
included responses to questions
presented in the anticipatory set to
elicit students’ prior understandings of lesson concepts, responses
to reflection questions, predictions
of experiments, and statements
about what the students liked or
disliked about using Google Earth
and My World GIS. The assessment
items included written responses
to analysis questions in the instructional handouts for each lesson. These items embedded spatial
thinking elements including concepts of space, tools of representation, and processes of reasoning
(National Research Council 2006).
Data Analyses
We conducted a content analysis of the field notes from the
classroom observations, debriefing
sessions between the teacher and
the observer, written student responses to all instructional materials, embedded curriculum assessment responses, and students’
journal entries. Content analysis
is the process of identifying, coding, and categorizing the primary
Integrating Geospatial Technologies in an Energy Unit
thinking skills, student use of
geospatial technologies, and student learning issues.
We also developed an expert
energy concept map to use as
a holistic assessment measure for
assessing students’ final concept
maps. On the expert energy concept map, we provided the definition, forms, and daily uses of
energy. We subdivided the three
major energy sources (sun, moon,
and earth) into renewable and nonrenewable sources. Under the sun,
we listed solar, wind, biomass, and
hydroelectric energy as renewable
sources and coal, oil, and natural
gas as nonrenewable sources. Under the moon, we listed tidal energy
as a renewable source. We placed
geothermal energy as a renewable
source and nuclear energy as a nonFigure 5. Google Earth image of five metropolitan areas in the northwest U.S. and
renewable source under the earth.
c 2010 Google.)
overlays of areas with geothermal activity. (Google Earth image
In addition, we described how
each energy source is created, is
used, and listed its environmental impacts. Using the expert
patterns in the data (Patton 2002). Using our research quesenergy concept map as a holistic assessment measure, we
tions to guide our coding categories, we read and reviewed
compared the students’ initial and final energy concept
the curriculum implementation data several times and
maps to check whether students had added any new
classified all data into an appropriate category. Our coding
content knowledge to their initial energy concept maps
categories included knowledge of energy resources, spatial
and whether the content knowledge was placed under the correct
construct.
FINDINGS
Data analyses of the field notes
from the daily classroom observations, debriefing sessions between
the teacher and the observer, and
all student artifacts were clustered into four major headings that
aligned to our research questions.
Figure 6. My World GIS map of the world displaying petroleum (crude oil) reserves
data.
Students’ Knowledge of Energy
Resources
As noted earlier, all class sessions began with an anticipatory
set. Often, the teacher asked reflection questions to review what students had learned in the previous
day’s lesson. Students responded
to these reflection questions either
aloud in the classroom or they
provided a written response in
their journals. A content analysis of
students’ journal entries and field
245
Violet A. Kulo and Alec M. Bodzin
Figure 7. Basic energy concept map.
notes from the classroom observations revealed that most
students responded correctly to the reflection questions.
Also, we reviewed students’ worksheets and found that
students responded correctly to most of the embedded
energy content assessment questions implying that they
had gained energy content knowledge.
We analyzed the initial energy concept maps and found
that students had little prior understanding of energy
resources. Most students did not know the forms of energy,
the origin of different energy sources, and they knew very
little or no content information about each energy resource.
At the end of the unit, we reviewed the students’ final
energy concept maps using the expert energy concept map
we had developed as a holistic assessment measure. We
found a remarkable improvement between the two concept maps; students correctly placed the different energy
resources under their respective origin. They added more
information to their concept maps such as the advantages
and disadvantages of the energy resources. In addition, they
also included understandings of energy resources that were
not present in their initial concept maps. For example, coal,
natural gas, and petroleum are all fossil fuels that come from
buried remains of plants and animals that lived millions
of years ago; the sun, by heating parts of the atmosphere
differently, causes wind; tides are caused by the moon’s
gravitational pull; and biomass contains stored energy from
the sun obtained through photosynthesis.
Students’ Spatial Thinking Skills
Students’ written responses to the analysis questions
embedded in the instructional materials revealed that
246
students developed and utilized
five of eight fundamental spatial
thinking skills (Gersmehl 2008).
Students were able to successfully
compare the similarities and differences in the land cover and
topography of different locations
with solar power plants and wind
farms. They correctly described
the patterns and determined ideal
locations for placing new power
plants. Students learned spatial hierarchies such as dams are built
on rivers and rivers are part of
larger watersheds. Learners also
correctly described the pattern they
observed of the shape and size
of the river on the upstream and
downstream sides of the dams.
After exploring different features of
geothermal activity, students were
able to correctly determine the
best locations for placing geothermal power plants through spatial
analogy. Last but not least, students were able to correctly identify
spatial associations between different countries’ consumption of fossil fuels and their population densities.
Students’ Responses to Using Geospatial Technologies
Students had both positive and negative reactions with
regard to using Google Earth and My World GIS in their
classroom instruction. Students were engaged, on task,
and curious about the functionalities of both geospatial
applications. On the first day of using the GIS, they went
far beyond what they were required to do in the activity.
Students not only completed the task, but also continued
following the instructions in their handouts to finish the
remainder of the learning tasks. However, a few students
appeared to disengage when required to use spatial measurement and analysis tools. For example, although these
students were actively engaged in exploration tasks such
as visually touring power plant locations, they did not like
using the measurement tools, querying GIS databases, or
performing GIS tasks to develop new data layers for pattern
analysis. Such learning tasks involved using additional
tool features of the geospatial learning technologies. For
instance, after students explored the solar power plants they
used the Google Earth ruler tool to measure the perimeter
of the different solar power plants. The observer noted
that some students grunted aloud. This was also echoed
in one student’s comment, “What I disliked is we had to
find perimeter.”
Our analysis of student journals revealed that most
students perceived that Google Earth and My World GIS
helped them to develop spatial skills. Some comments
obtained from the students’ journals included, “I liked how
Integrating Geospatial Technologies in an Energy Unit
we can find the places where solar power is made,” wrote
one student about the exploring solar power plants with
Google Earth activity; “I liked solar panels and different
places on Earth,” “I could see solar panels,” said a second
student. Another student wrote, “You could see a lot about
the U.S. For example you could check how much sunlight
hit one spot.” A fourth comment was “I think My World
is good to find data about different countries.” Despite
the positive comments about using geospatial technologies,
students also experienced some frustration with using the
software. One student’s comment about My World GIS was,
“It was very slow, it was also complicated to understand.”
Further, students appeared to have lost motivation when
many lessons that had GIS activities were sequenced
consecutively. For example, the fossil fuels lessons had
been allotted six consecutive days on the instructional
sequence. Students seemed to be
off task and less engaged on the
fifth day when they began the
natural gas investigation.
Figure 8. Illustration of how screen captures and arrows were used to complement
instructions.
Revisions to Enhance Student
Learning
During our content analysis of
the data, we looked for any recurring comments, concerns, and
issues regarding what did not
work well during the implementation and thus needed to be improved. We observed that though
we had developed the instructional
handouts to be learner-centered,
that is, designed in a way that
students could easily follow on
their own, the teacher modified
the instructional delivery of some
learning tasks to be predominantly
teacher-directed when students experienced some difficulties working independently. Therefore, revisions to the instructional materials
included incorporating additional
scaffolding in the student materials that included more guided
prompts to help the students with
lower English language acquisition
abilities to answer the questions.
For example, in describing the topography and land cover at wind
farms, we included use of descriptive word examples such as flat,
hilly, open, forested, etc.
We also included additional
graphical supports such as screen
captures with arrows to draw students’ attention to specific locations on the computer screen that
were needed to complete a learning
task. We designed the instructional
handouts to include screen capture
images that were placed adjacent
to the instructions and we included
numbered arrows to show exactly
where the tasks were to be completed. Further, we incorporated
247
Violet A. Kulo and Alec M. Bodzin
additional white space on the student handouts to increase
readability. Figure 8 illustrates the use of screen capture
images and numbered arrows on a step that had students
analyze per capita crude oil consumption for each country.
In the provided example, students performed a math
operation to create a new GIS layer and then answered
analysis questions based on that layer.
We found that students took much longer than we anticipated to complete geospatial investigations that used the
desktop My World GIS application; our twenty-nine-day
instructional sequence took thirty-four days to complete.
The teacher occasionally had students skip questions on
their worksheets because of the length of time it took them
to finish geospatial investigations. Hence, we streamlined
all geospatial lessons in order for students to complete all
learning tasks within a more reasonable amount of time.
In the revised materials, we reduced the scope of the GIS
investigations and the number of analysis questions on the
students’ worksheets.
DISCUSSION
Findings from classroom observations, debriefing meetings between the teacher and the classroom observer, and
examination of all student artifacts (concept maps, journal
entries, and written responses to all embedded assessment
items) revealed that the energy unit utilizing geospatial
technologies appears to have helped middle school students improve their knowledge of energy resources and
their spatial thinking skills. Students’ final concept maps
showed a large gain in their energy content knowledge.
Students’ responses to the analysis questions in the instructional handouts showed a substantial use of five spatial
analysis skills: comparison, analogy, hierarchy, pattern, and
association. Most students perceived the implementation
of the geospatial technologies-supported science unit quite
favorably. They were actively engaged in the learning tasks,
liked exploring different geographic locations, investigated
driving questions that involved spatial thinking skills,
and learned important concepts about energy resources.
Students were often intrinsically motivated to continue to
explore the geospatial data independently after they completed their assigned learning tasks. Often, they explored
the geospatial tools to discover additional functionalities of
the application such as changing data layer appearances or
creating new data layers.
The teacher found the educative curriculum materials
very useful for making pedagogical decisions. From our
discussions with the teacher in the daily debriefing sessions,
it was quite evident that the educative curriculum materials
provided support to help the teacher model and scaffold
learning activities, and helped to promote the teacher’s
own spatial thinking skills. Much scaffolding within the
instructional materials in addition to classroom modeling
by the teacher was needed to assist students with completing the geospatial learning tasks. Helpful scaffolds and
modeling included prompts to focus learners on specific
spatial aspects of visual data displays, screen captures of
248
the Google Earth and My World GIS interfaces to assist
learners with procedures, and step-by-step instructions for
manipulating the tools to assist with pattern finding and
data analysis.
Geospatial technologies have a promising role in both
promoting students’ spatial thinking skills and enhancing
content knowledge. Based on this study’s findings and
additional feedback from the teacher, all instructional materials in the Energy unit were revised. We also developed
a culminating GIS activity for the Energy unit in which
students are tasked with creating a viable energy policy
to meet the needs of its society for a fictitious island
nation. In this activity, students are confronted with realworld problems including transportation distance, limited
infrastructure, and energy resources in environmentally
sensitive or culturally significant areas. In addition, we
developed more educative curriculum materials such as
screencasts for using Google Earth and My World GIS in
the learning tasks and additional pedagogical suggestions
for teachers who work with diverse learners. In our
future work, we intend to use a valid and reliable energy
resources content measure to assess specific energy content
knowledge domains and spatial thinking skills.
In addition to the study of energy resources, geospatial
technologies can be used for a variety of environmental
issues investigations including climate change and land
use issues. Geospatial technology is situated at the intersection between information technology and communication
technology, using computer-generated maps to synthesize
image data and numeric data and enabling both the analysis
and the display of geographically referenced information.
Geospatial technologies enable students to analyze spatial
data, create maps, and access much of the same data
regularly used by scientific and geographic professionals
in the earth, ecological, and environmental science fields.
With appropriately designed instruction and pedagogical
supports, we contend that geospatial technologies can offer
middle school students a more optimal learning experience
compared to a curriculum that uses static maps for spatial
investigations.
For developers of geospatial instructional materials, we
advocate that much instructional support and guidance
needs to be provided for both teachers and learners. Teacher
support should include, but is not limited to, content,
pedagogical, and technological support. Support for the
learners can be embedded in the instructional handouts in
the form of step-by-step instructions that include screen
captures of how to perform specific geospatial learning
tasks, as well as helpful hints and guided prompts to
scaffold spatial analysis. In addition to the embedded
support for the learners, teachers integrating geospatial
technologies in their classrooms need to provide much
scaffolding such as modeling the learning tasks and
providing pedagogically appropriate examples to help
learners develop spatial thinking skills. Also, developers
need to work closely with content specialists and classroom
teachers who are grounded in the realities of classroom
Integrating Geospatial Technologies in an Energy Unit
implementation issues that include curriculum time constraints and technology issues to determine the appropriate
scope and sequence of instruction. New technology usually
has some cognitive demands on the users and having much
material to be covered in a short time while trying to learn
a new tool exacerbates the cognitive load.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
This work was supported in part by the Toyota USA
Foundation. The authors gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dr. Dork Sahagian, Dr. David Anastasio, Tamara
Peffer, and Lori Cirucci, without whose help this work
would not have been possible. The energy resources unit is
available at: http://ei.lehigh.edu/eli/energy/
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