GIS Day Q & A with Joseph Kerski

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If you’ve ever had the
pleasure of meeting Joseph Kerski, Education Manager for ESRI, at a conference
or, better yet, in a hands-on classroom setting, you know that he is as dynamic,
passionate, and charming as he is adept at what he does.  We were thrilled when Joseph agreed to take a
moment out of his recent trip exploring GIS education in Taiwan to answer some of our questions
about geospatial technology and his work with ESRI.

Please tell us a bit
about what you do as Education Manager for ESRI.
What do you like best about your job?

As Education Manager, I am part of a team that focuses on
expanding the geographic perspective and spatial analysis through the use of
GIS technology and methods at all levels of education, both formal and
informal. I write GIS-based curriculum for a variety of disciplines and levels,
seek and support partnerships with organizations to advance GIS in education, conduct
online, face-to-face, and hands-on workshops and courses, provide technical and
pedagogical support for educators working with geospatial technology, and
conduct research in the effectiveness and implementation of GIS in
education.  What I like best about it all
is the opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of thousands of
people annually, around the world.  Another
wonderful part of my job is the talented and dedicated people on our ESRI
Education Team that I serve with, and the fact that ESRI is so supportive of education.

How did you get to
your current position? I notice that you hold a PhD degree–is this in
geography? Education? Another related field?

After serving for 4 years as Geographer at the US Census
Bureau, 17 years as Geographer at the USGS, and as adjunct instructor at
several universities, the fine folks at ESRI convinced me that to join their
team would allow me to have a greater potential impact on society, as well as
allow for increased opportunity for personal and professional growth.  As I have 3 degrees–all in Geography, I guess
you would say I have a one track mind! 
Actually, one could say that all geographers have a multi-track mind,
right?

What trends have you
seen in the use of geospatial technology in the classroom in the last five
years? Ten years? What do you think classroom trends will look like into the
future?

In the past 20 years, geospatial technologies have been
affected by six trends that directly impact the classroom.  First, the software moved from something confined
largely to a mini- or mainframe computer to something that could be effectively
run on any computer.  Second, the software moved from a prompt requesting
user input to a series of graphical user interfaces and wizards that guide the
user through processes, and thus GIS software has become much more visual as
well as more user-friendly.  Indeed, some
GIS work can be done entirely with web-GIS portals on the Internet.  Third, because of the Internet, educators
using geotechnologies easily share what they are doing with others, access
spatial data sets without the need to transfer them via tapes, disks, and other
media, and collaborate with others to learn about the Earth and its people.  Fourth, geospatial technologies have gone mobile–on
your PDA, on your cell phone, in your car, and thus is becoming familiar to the
general public.  Fifth, the expansion of
GIS into more fields more rapidly than workers could be trained brought a focus
by the US Department of Labor on geotechnology education and subsequent funding
by NSF and others.  Sixth, a community of
educators who are passionate about teaching with GIS and teaching about GIS has
become a growing international community. 
Each of these trends has hastened the use of GIS at all levels of education,
both formal and informal.  Because I see
GIS as “applied geography,” I believe that these trends have increased the
breadth and depth of geography being used in everyday decisions.  However, one only needs to look at the
deforestation and urban sprawl that continues on a daily basis to realize that
we still have a long way to go.  Still, I
have great hope for the future.

Can you tell us a
little about the educational value to students of creating maps, and how this
compares to the practice of interpreting maps?

I believe that the primary value of creating and
interpreting maps is to foster the geographic perspective.  Geography is not simply a body of content
knowledge, but provides a way of looking at the world.  I would argue that with the explosion of
mash-ups, GIS, and other tools that generate as many maps each day as we used
to produce in a decade, it is more important to understand how to interpret
maps than to create them.  We must
encourage students to become critical consumers of all information, including
maps, asking questions such as:  Who
created this map?  For what purpose was
it created?  What content is the map
showing, and what content is it leaving out? 
What errors are inherent in the map? 
What spatial relationship is the map showing?  Nevertheless, creating maps is also valuable,
because it helps students understand the value judgments inherent in the
process.  Furthermore, now more than
ever, we need people who know how to create maps and spatial databases to help
us grapple with the complex issues we face in societies around the world.

Should non-geography
teachers of subjects like science, history, mathematics, or language arts care
about maps?

I will put it bluntly–without the geographic perspective,
and the ability to use and apply this perspective using geotechnologies–we are
going to have a rough time in the 21st Century, and so will the
Earth on which we depend.  A ‘geographic
perspective’ informs just about every other discipline.  When epidemiologists study the spread of
diseases, scientists study climate change, or businesspersons determine where
to locate a new retail establishment, they use spatial thinking and analysis.
In each case, GIS provides the critical tools and geography provides the critical
framework for studying these issues and for solving very real problems on a
daily basis. Geography is not simply a ‘nice to have’ subject for an already
crowded educational curriculum. It underpins the critical thinking skills,
technology skills, citizenship skills, and life skills that in turn underpin
all other disciplines.  Geography is
essential for grappling with the essential issues of the twenty-first century.
If we continue to ignore geography education, we do so at our own peril.

People have always been fascinated with investigating the
Earth. For centuries, maps have stirred imaginations and inspired explorations
of the unknown.  Today, geography is more
relevant than ever before as issues of climate change, cultural diversity,
economic globalization, urban sprawl, biodiversity loss, sustainable
agriculture, water quality and quantity, crime, energy, tourism, politics, and
natural hazards grow in importance on a global scale and affect our everyday
lives. To grapple with these issues requires a populace that has a firm
foundation in geography, a populace that not only can see the ‘big picture’ but
one that understands how different patterns and trends are related from a
global scale down to the local community.

In your article “Understanding
our Changing World through Mapping and Geotechnologies,”
you emphasize the value of computer-based
maps over paper-based maps to demonstrate change occurring on the Earth’s
surface. Why is this so important for the inquiry-driven student to understand?

Let’s face it–studying another planet for a lifetime, such
as Mercury–would get pretty boring after awhile.  Except for the occasional meteor impact, what
happens to break the monotony?  Studying
the Earth, on the other hand, is continually fascinating, because something is
always happening.  Natural forces and
human-caused forces act to change the Earth at different spatial and temporal
scales.  Studying change is important
from a geographic perspective because many of those changes impact human
lives–and indeed, many of the changes are caused
by
humans.  What can we do to adapt
to change?  What can we do to minimize
the change that we inflict upon the Earth? 
Because the Earth is constantly changing, we need digital maps.  Digital maps can be rapidly updated,
analyzed, and modified, helping us to understand change more effectively than
paper maps with their static scale, symbology, and content. 

In the same article
you describe maps as educational tools to inspire student activism. Can you
share any examples of students using maps for activist purposes?

Yes, there are many examples; I will share just a few.  Young people at EnviroSchools New Zealand  use maps to promote sustainable local communities.  I worked with students who created wildfire maps
in Colorado
using GPS and GIS to advocate that there is benefit in letting
wildfires burn rather than suppressing them. An ESRI Press book “Think
Globally, Act Regionally”
describes other examples of how organizations use
GIS and maps to inspire people to get involved and solve problems.  

What advice do you
have for students looking to pursue a career in geospatial technology?

First, the rapid expansion of geospatial technology into
nearly every field served by academia, government, industry, and nonprofit
organizations means that the opportunities for geospatial careers are more
numerous and more varied than at any time in the past.  Second, many of the positions that use
geospatial technology have not been invented yet.  Build your skills, follow your dreams,
network with geography and geospatial professional societies such as AAG, NCGE,
RGS, the Geographical Association, GITA, URISA, ACSM, the Society for
Conservation GIS, and others, and make a case to your chosen organization as to
why you with your geospatial skills and geographic perspective would help make
that organization indispensable. 

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Thanks Joseph! Make sure to visit ESRI's Geography Awareness Week page for a wealth of GIS activities and resources.


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