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Learning To Think Spatially
This has caused a surge of innovation, as new technologies have developed to link places on the internet with places in the real world—stitching together the supposedly separate virtual and physical worlds” (Economist, 2003, p. 19). Geolocation systems match Internet addresses and physical locations. Thus, we are moving into a world of personal computing functionality (such as geo-enabled Personal Digital Assistants [PDAs] in car navigation systems [see Box 6.2] and cell phones with GPS functions), which provide us with and enable us to use spatial information. For example, Location Based Services (LBS), which link mobile devices (cell phones, PDAs, etc.) with GPS technology, allow for the tracking of people in geographical space and for the provision of real-time information to people as they move in space (Did you know that store X, only 50 yards away, has a sale on item Y?). That information would come from access to your recent purchasing patterns, your current location, and the proximity to a store offering similar goods. As Dobson and Fisher (2003, p. 52) pointed out, “LBS offers major benefits on the one hand and horrendous risks on the other.” In either case, the spatial thinking skills of the user are an essential prerequisite.
At a more fundamental level, there is an intersection between information technology (IT) and the idea of space. The intersection takes a variety of forms. It is estimated, for example, that 80 percent of all data can be given spatial coordinates and therefore spatialized. It is similarly estimated that 80 percent of all text documents contain geographical references (M. F. Goodchild, personal communication, 2003). Fabrikant and Buttenfield (2001) show that it is possible to spatialize various forms of knowledge and that the spatialization of mapping domains has become a topic of great interest in information science. The management of increasingly massive databases depends on data mining, a technique that draws extensively on spatial concepts, and visualization, an approach that is equally spatial in its foundations. The classic example of this convergence of spatialization and visualization is the analytic technique of multidimensional scaling (MDS), wherein measures of similarity are defined between objects in a data set (e.g., automobiles, books in a library, characters in a play). MDS attempts to create a space of a prescribed number of dimensions, and to find locations for objects in that space, such that the distances between pairs of locations in the space are as closely correlated as possible with the measures of similarity. The output of the program can be displayed graphically.
This convergence between concepts of space and IT means that, increasingly, problems will be posed in and solved within spatial frameworks (Goodchild, 2001). In turn, people will be presented with opportunities to and faced with the need to think spatially in everyday life (using MapQuest to generate driving directions), in the workplace (using a display system to route traffic or control aircraft), and in science (using the visual output of a data mining program).
5.3PROVIDING SKILLED SPATIAL THINKERS
A strong component of the drive for K–12 educational reform since the 1989 Charlottesville Education Summit has been a concern about the capacity of the American workforce to compete successfully in a context defined by intense international competition in global markets and rapid technological change in the nature of the work process. These concerns are part of the rationale for two of the National Education Goals: Goal 3 (“all students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter … and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so that they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our Nations’ modern economy”) and Goal 6 (“every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship”).
The thrust of the Secretary of Labor’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report (U.S. Department of Labor, 1991, p. 2) was that “for most of this century, as this nation took its goods and know-how to the world, America did not have to worry about competition from