• Geography teacher

    For Ewan Geddes, GIS is an integral part of his classroom. In PD workshops, Geddes encourages other teachers to give it a try by emphasizing that GIS is a tool to explore geography and that it is okay to be learning the software alongside their students as it it can be a collaborative learning experience. (Photo: Ewan Geddes)

Ewan Geddes hasn't always considered himself savvy with technology, but today, GIS technology plays a major role in his classroom. Geddes teaches Grade 9 geography and Grade 12 world issues, at York Mills Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ont. He has also served as a consultant for geography, civics and spatial technology for the Toronto District School Board, helping out with PD workshops on incorporating geospatial technology. In addition, Geddes works with the Skills Canada Team to chair GIS competitions, and he is the current Ontario representative for Can Geo Education’s executive committee.

On what is at the center of his teaching

I try to incorporate GIS into every class activity. By the end of the semester, the hope is that they don't have to even think about using the software. In Grade 9 geography, we look at a lot of social issues, environmental issues, and really looking at what's happening around us right now and bringing that into the classroom so that it's a little bit more meaningful for the students. Then we look at how can we use GIS to map it out and use StoryMaps to share what a possible solution might be. So for example, we had a look at John Hopkins data for COVID-19 and then we tried to make it specific for Toronto. We looked at whatever Toronto data we could get from the open source data and mapped it out—we had income, accessibility to transportation, access to walk-in clinics or other health care centers, and just to find out what parts of Toronto might be neglected. GIS can be used to help better understand how to solve a problem, so it touches almost every aspect of our lives.

On using geospatial technology to make learning more engaging

Survey123 and StoryMaps is kind of at the level where a lot of students are right now with regards to using technology, so it's nothing new to them. Usually I will set up a scenario with a few standard layers to add in some data and then ask them to go out and collect some other data, asking questions in Survey123 or maybe doing an environmental audit and mapping out sick trees or potholes or something like that. I think it really engages them. And because it's on the computer, when they're done, it looks a lot more professional and they're happy with their work. They don't have to be artists to create really nice maps and an analysis. With Survey123, they can get their data and actually graph it, and then they can interpret that a lot easier. And everything's at their fingertips, so if their data changes or the question changes, they can quickly turn the map around and within minutes have a brand new map, so they can look at different scenarios very quickly.

I want to engage them with meaningful geography, and I try to bring it across in fun ways, because I think that if they're doing something they enjoy, they will remember it a lot more than being told “you have to do it this way or that way”. We really try to give students options in their evaluations. For instance, when we do natural resources, we do a basic information breakdown of the different types of resources out there and then I ask them to pick the one they're most interested in. Sometimes, they may pick something that I haven't presented on, and that's okay too, because it means something to them. I think that way they will take a lot more out of the geography classroom than just following along with a textbook.

On memorable projects his students have done

We had one student this year evaluating different issues that the Indigenous population was facing, especially in light of the residential schools issue. She did some research and she really wanted to make a difference, so she wrote a wonderful letter, and I encouraged her to send it off to some decision-makers, to actually get some feedback. I often have my students create a communication tool that they might send off to somebody who's a decision-maker, and she actually sent it off to a member of parliament and the newspaper. This way, they really engage in what's going on and they can take some civic action and feel that they can be a part of the solution. I think that for majority of kids, it sticks with them a little bit more. Two students in my world issues class did a study on mental health a few years ago. They actually created models of where bullying is taking place in the school and came up with how teachers or hall monitors could maybe walk around certain areas at certain times to help reduce interactions with bullies.

On what he has learned from his students

I actually learned how to use ArcGIS, many years ago when I first started teaching, from one of my students. We had a geomatics class, which was dealing with ArcGIS all the time, so I had the basics of it, but this student who I was coaching on the hockey team had actually done a co-op at Esri, so he was very fluid with the software. Lucky for me, when I was teaching the geomatics class, any time I ran into problems with the software, he was able to come in and show me how I could do it and then shared it with the class. On a few occasions, I just had him teach a skill to the class and took notes. That one really stands out because it was early on in my career. I was never a computer person, and then using the tool once or twice, you could really see how useful it can be in teaching geography.

On the geography connections in careers

When I look at when Maclean's puts out the “Top 25 jobs in Canada” and I break it down, I go through those jobs, and a lot of those jobs, if they're not geographic, then there's a lot of geographic skills. In banking for instance, I had a former student who worked for a bank and he mapped out ATMs and how much cash they were putting out. The bank decided to close down certain ATMs because they were paying rent on the property but the ATMs weren't putting out so much cash. Then in marketing, it can be used to target certain cohorts or demographics on what they're purchasing or spending and things like that. I try to show students the connections. And then we kind of play with what kind of geographic skills they need, the analytical aspects of problem-solving and those types of skill. There's a lot of transferable geographic skills in the workforce that people aren't aware of. My brother works for a pretty large company, and I jokingly asked him one summer, "Let me know if your GIS department has any part-time work." He came back with, “Oh we don't have that here,” and then two weeks later, there was an internal postings for GIS specialists. So a lot of people don't realize how geography is interrelated with so many different aspects in so many different careers.