For history teacher Mariana Ramirez and English teacher Alice Im, education is viewed as engaging young people in the world, helping them speak up, ask questions, and contribute. Rather than racing to cover the content, these two spend a little time, dig a little deeper, and engage the students. GIS is a key part of this.

Every school year begins with these teachers, armed with computers, the internet, and a map waiting to be enriched, guiding 11th graders from the Math, Science, and Technology Magnet Academy at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles as they work on their projects. Understanding their world is the general task, but they must focus on a specific issue; work in teams; be scientific in gathering social data; analyze it mathematically; and then present it so others see and grasp its impact.

Using Challenges as GIS Project Opportunities

Roosevelt is a generations-old school in Boyle Heights—a storied community in East Los Angeles. Students in the Magnet Academy come by foot, skateboard, and bus, some needing over an hour and multiple bus transfers. The Academy is over 90 percent Hispanic, and over 90 percent free or reduced lunch. Many of Roosevelt’s students speak Spanish at home, and many will be the first in their family to go to college. Physical assets in the school beg for upgrade, but Ramirez and Im use the challenges in their world as opportunities to engage the students.

Each year’s research project explores social justice, and they touch on the ideas through fall and winter as they build the mapping, data, and thinking skills needed for their big GIS project.

Over the years, student have tackled serious and vexing issues, such as:

  • Gentrification and community displacement
  • Patterns of pollution, income, and political power
  • Availability of green space
  • Relationships between community and law enforcement
  • Public art as heritage relative to commercial billboards
  • Fast food chains versus family-owned food trucks
  • Food deserts, public gardens, and plantable space
  • Expressions of prejudice against race, religion, sexual identity

To form some context around these serious issues, these teachers have turned to Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  Why is GIS so impactful in understanding communities’ most difficult issues?  And why is this skillset important to teach today’s students?

(Next page: GIS projects as community-building)