To be supportive of this process, a GIS analysis would involve several stages: initial assembly of data; addressing issues of transformation to achieve data compatibility; analysis using one or more functions; and preparation of the results for dissemination. As such, GIS has the potential to become an effective vehicle for accommodating the stages of scientific problem formulation and solution. The user, who is able to change direction and retrace steps based on interim results, directs the process of solution. In principle, then, GIS use can reflect many of the ideals of exploration-driven, discovery-based, student-centered inquiry.

In reality, however, current versions of GIS pose problems for student-centered inquiry in the following ways:

  • GIS programs have a tendency to concentrate on the later stages of the inquiry process—analysis, presentation, and communication. They offer limited support for the data exploration stage—hypothesis generation and concept synthesis—upon which the later activities of the inquiry process are predicated. This situation is beginning to change with the inclusion of exploratory visualization techniques into GIS (Gahegan, 1999). These techniques allow the linking together of maps and charts to simultaneously explore spatial and nonspatial patterns in data.

  • Student-centered inquiry benefits from guidance and feedback. GIS software lacks reflective wizards to provide directed feedback. Presently, there are scripting wizards that provide students with prescriptive guidance, but only in the sense of “here’s how to get things done.” Reflective wizards are needed to help students reflect on what is being done, why it is being done in those ways, and what is not being—but might be—done in other ways.

  • Data for use in projects tend to be stored in more than one file. For example, three separate files are needed to view and work with a project in ArcView. These files are .shp (shape file), .dbf (attribute file), and .shx (index file). Lacking appropriate feedback, students tend to copy only one file (.shp) and forget that the other two files are also needed. This situation is beginning to change in ESRI’s new data format where, for clarity, much of the necessary data are contained in a single file.

  • GIS application interfaces do not facilitate multistage inquiry. Two styles of user interface design have dominated the field: the command-line style in which all commands are typed in text form and the WIMP. Both require a substantial commitment on the part of the user to choose and invoke relevant operations. Recently, there has been a movement to a more visual approach, which uses a pictorial interface to design and implement a process of multistage analysis (Figure 8.4). In pictorial interfaces, a box represents every intermediate data set, and arrows represent operations. Interacting with the diagram can lead to change in analyses, and intermediate steps can be recovered when it is necessary to replace one line of approach with another. Pictorial interfaces could make the process of inquiry more explicit and therefore more suited to the K–12 context. There is a clear need to promote pictorial user interfaces for the support of multistage inquiry.

2. Be Useful in Solving Problems in a Wide Range of Real-World Contexts. There is probably no better high-tech support system for addressing spatially explicit real-world problems than GIS. GIS succeeds as a tool for both curiosity-driven scientific research and context-driven problem-solving work because it supports functions that are useful in both situations. For example, ecologists use the perspective provided by GIS both to advance understanding of how organisms interact with each other and with their physical environment and to develop improved plans for wildlife management, based on principles identified by research scientists. Thus, GIS can provide the vital link between science and policy (application). At the most general level, science is interested in principles and laws that are true everywhere, independent of geographic context, and science can be presented as a process for abstracting such truths from their geographic setting.

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