HM - Mar. 2015 - Bunin

Classroom Applications


Preparing the Next Generation:
Four Reasons to Use GIS in the History Classroom

by Chris Bunin
Albemarle High School
Charlottesville, VA


“We tell our students about change over time, we have our students read about change over time, with GIS my students are able to see change over time”.
-  Teresa Goodin, Gifted Resource Teacher, Albemarle County Schools

  • Do you want your students to work like twenty-first century “digital” historians?
  • Do you aim to have your students grasp the connections between geography and history?
  • Do you aim to make your activities inquiry-based, interactive, and exciting?
  • Do you aim to create activities that integrate twenty-first century workforce skills?

If you answered “yes” to any of these, then you need to read on and learn how you can quickly and naturally integrate geographic information systems (GIS) into your classroom instruction.  Doing so will change the way you and your students think about and see past events.

What is GIS?

A Geographic Information System is a digital mapping program that allows users to view a map as layers of information that they can manipulate to visualize or analyze patterns and connections. We use GIS in all sorts of ways in our everyday lives – MapQuest, Google Maps, tracking the pizza delivery guy, picking out the best seat on an airplane, and so forth.  A few years ago Penn State created a video series to help educate people about the geospatial revolution.  Take a look at it here:

You might be wondering - how easy it is to use this cutting edge technology in the classroom?  If you know Excel and have access to the internet you can have your students, as early as today, using GIS to explore, analyze, and visualize past episodes and events.  

What follows are four reasons you need to take advantage of what GIS has to offer to our discipline, our students, and our education system.

#1 - “Using a Dart Gun to Take Down an Elephant” – The Power of Layers

I am always looking for ways to save time, promote inquiry, and be more efficient in my teaching.  As a friend of mine likes to say – "we need to find a way to take down the elephant with a dart gun.”  That is, let’s find ways to leverage technology to cover lots of material/concepts in shorter and more effective ways.  Of course you also need to make sure you don’t just use technology for technology’s sake and end up using a bazooka to take out an ant.   

One way GIS serves this effective, powerful way of teaching is through the use of layers.  Having the information separated into layers is excellent for showing change over time and geography connections. 

I use the layering technique when teaching about the Louisiana Purchase.

The activity consists of seven layers of information – New Orleans, The United States, Major Rivers of the United States, Mississippi River, Mississippi River System, Mississippi River States and The Louisiana Purchase. Essentially by turning layers on and off the map is no longer a “what you see is what you get map,” but rather one in which something can be revealed or highlighted in order for connections to be made in a way that really helps students “get it.”  In ten minutes nearly all of my students are able to explain that besides being a great land deal that doubled the size of the United States, the Louisiana Purchase had serious implications for transportation, trade, and national security.


These images show the power of layering GIS maps:

The image above shows the basic interface of the "Why New Orleans?" ArcGIS Online map created by Kristin Shuman(Orange County Schools, Virginia) and myself. To activate the layers you simply have to click on the "layers" symbol.


This image shows how the map changes when you turn on the Mississippi and Mississippi River System Layers.  The interaction between these three layers help generate a powerful conversation about New Orleans' location at the mouth of the Mississippi River Sytem.


This image shows all of the layers turned on and helps reveal the connection between the land, the Louisiana Purchase, the rivers,and New Orleans.


LINK to the live WebGIS Map -


Since the information is stored in the map you or your students can click on different features to get information.  As a result you can answer a lot of your student’s questions without –

A) Knowing everything about the topic,

B) Having to say “I don’t know, but I will check on that,” or

C) “I don’t know the answer, but I will give you extra credit if you go find it.” 


#2 - Accordion Mapping

While layering maps is a nice, quick, and simple way to leverage GIS in the history classroom, my favorite aspect is the manner in which my students and I can manipulate the maps.  With a GIS map I am not captive to a “one size fits all” map that may be in my textbook, PowerPoint presentation, or atlas.  My students and I are able to shrink, expand, or change the map as we see fit.  These “on the fly” changes can reflect the topic I am teaching, the digital history skills I want my students to grasp, a question a student asks during the lesson, or a research question/task my students are completing.   GIS maps are like accordions - depending on your goal you can show, remove, or generate new information based on the goals, realities, and personalities in your classroom. 

Take for instance a GIS map that I use for teaching the American Revolutionary War. With this same map and with the click of a couple of buttons I can:

  1. Show all battles and 13 colonies as one country and one war or I can quickly symbolize and categorize the colonies into the three colonial regions and classify the battles by year.  In a book these maps would probably be on a different pages.  With GIS it’s the same map.
  2. Choosing to “filter” the map to show only the battles in 1775 and only the New England Region or just show the battles and forces involved in the Siege of Yorktown.
  3. Add map notes to hyperlink to and incorporate primary source analysis within the same map.
  4. “Crowd source*” my students’ research and opinions by having them add their own placemarks and annotate key people, key events, and key documents using a computer or their smartphone.
  5. Assign my students a research assignment and use the same American Revolutionary War map as a base map that they can reference and personalize in a Story Map.

*To experience the power of crowdsourcing go my GeoHistory crowdsourcing map that asks people to place a point on a location where they feel geography influenced history or a location where history influenced geography. 

A link to crowd source map for teachers to enter a place where Geography Influenced History: 

Go to this ArcGIS Online map  ( and place a point on the map that represents a location where geography influenced history. To insert a point choose Edit and then click on the green Placing History dot located under "Add Features."  Hover your pointer over the map and click to drop a point on the map (there may be a delay between when you click and when the information window appears).  Fill in the generic information requested (initials, date, and brief description).


#3 - College and Workforce Readiness

“What you are doing is changing, and will change, how and what students think about the past. You and your students get it!” 

                                                                        -Anne Kelly Knowles, Placing History

The above statement was made by Anne Kelly Knowles during a keynote presentation to “The Virginia Experiment” Teaching American History grant in 2007.  Working with The Virginia Center for Digital History and the Polis Center at IUPUI, ten classroom teachers were trained to use GIS and then spent a year researching and creating historical GIS data sets and lesson plans for the history classroom. Topics included Jim Crow Legislation, The Constitutional Convention, The American Revolutionary War, The Underground Railroad, and The Civil War <>.  Dr. Knowles’ comment above was in response to the poster presentations and GIS maps she saw that evening.  The technology is that powerful.

The use of GIS in historical scholarship is not new. It has been around for the past 20 years.  

A few of the flagship GIS projects out there are: 

Many universities and history departments are embracing the use of GIS to map, visualize, and analyze past events.  As a history teacher from Virginia I spend a lot of time teaching about The Civil War and Dr. Knowles’ work conducting a viewshed analysis of the Gettysburg Battlefield to find out what Robert E. Lee could, and could not, see in July of 1863 is a favorite!  In fact, Dr. Knowles was a 2012 winner of Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards for her use of GIS technology to change our view of history. <>

Using GIS in the history classroom will not only prepare students for the historical research they may face, but also the workforce they will face.  In 2010 the United States Department of Labor listed Geospatial Technologies as one of the five high-demand workforce areas of need.  Introducing GIS to students in the history classroom will provide them with skills they will need and make a difference for students who choose to enter the workforce immediately after high school or enter the military. 

#4 - Free Technology!

The final reason to add GIS to your classroom toolbox is because it is now FREE! As part of The President’s ConnectED initiative ESRI, the leading commercial GIS software company that they will provide free  ArcGIS Online (AGO) Organizational Accounts to all schools in the United States.  There is no catch.  Register your school through ESRI’s ConnectED website and receive commercial grade GIS.

Once you get this software you will have access to all sorts of cool GIS bells and whistles that include, but are not limited to:

  • An Organizational Account that allows you to enroll and manage 500 student accounts. You can group the students into classes and password-protect the maps.
  • The ability to create customized classroom or student maps on any topic you desire.
  • Access to advanced functions of ArcGIS Online, such as density analysis, proximity analysis, and interpolation (think weather maps!).
  • Access to AGO’s Story Map templates in which students can create Map Tours, Map Journals, and  Swipe Maps.

Get Started Today

Below are five steps you can take to start using GIS in your classroom.

  • Go to ESRI’s Story Map Gallery and find one that you can use in your classroom.  My personal favorite  is “Geography, Class, and  Fate: Passengers on the Titanic” <>
  • Enroll your school in ESRI’s ConnectED Initiative <> and try out some of the skill-builder activities <>
  • Check out these seven ready-to-go AGO GIS for US History maps that I co-authored with Christine Esposito and GISEtc. .  These maps accompany the workbook Jamestown to Appomattox: Mapping US History Using GIS that contains 21 lesson plans.  (if you are interested in buying a copy, use the code NCHE15 to save 15% until 3/31/2015)
  • Visit ESRI’s Story Map landing page and have your students build their first Story Map.  I personally recommend the Map Journal template.  It’s literally plug and play.
  • Join The Virginia Geographic Alliance GIS Users Group to access to lesson plans, technical support, and connect with like-minded educators.

Finally – feel free to contact me if you have any thoughts or questions about using GIS to enhance the history classroom.  Happy Mapping!

Chris Bunin teaches A.P. Human Geography, ESOL History, and Geospatial Technologies at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Virginia.  During the past decade he had been dedicated to creating data sets and instructional resources that use of geospatial technologies in social studies.  His projects have included: “The Virginia Experiment” Teaching American History Project; the “America on the World Stage” Teaching American History Project; theiSTEM Teacher Scholars Program: An Applied Geospatial Curriculum for Middle Schools; the "Transatlantic Teacher Scholars: Change Over Time and Place in the Meuse-­Argonne American Cemetery"; and the workbook Jamestown to Appomattox: Mapping US History using GIS (Carte Diem Press).  A recipient of the National Council for Geography Education’s Distinguished Teacher Achievement Award, he is also Assistant Professor of Geography at Piedmont Virginia Community College and co-chairs the Geospatial Technologies Committee for the Virginia Geographic Alliance. Follow Chris on Twitter @mapperdude