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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Public school pupils to ‘think spatially’

A pilot project involving new mapping technology has been incorporated into math, science and social studies curricula at Abu Dhabi public schools.

ABU DHABI // A pilot project involving new mapping technology has been introduced into maths, science and social studies lessons in every public school in Abu Dhabi. 

The lessons incorporated geographic information system technology, or GIS, while taking the pupils on field trips to research mangroves and the houbara bustard, and exploring the locations of Mongolian birds’ nests.

While being a “great adventure” for the Grade 6 pupils involved in the School GIS Project, the assignments taught them how to use new technology as well as spatial thinking, said Pakrad Balabanian, GIS team leader at the Abu Dhabi Education Council strategic affairs office.

“Spatial thinking is one of the new 21st-century skills that are required for new academics, and it’s even defined by the United Nations,” said Mr Balabanian, speaking at the GIS Forum in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

“It enables the students to think critically, to understand the phenomena around them,” he said. “The GIS will enable students to understand what is happening in a specific place, and what is the relation between different factors.”

The project was launched after the Abu Dhabi Government and Adec signed an agreement on the importance of GIS in education. 

Adec used ArcGIS, an application that creates interactive maps using online databases, provided by mapping software company Esri.

Student interest and teachers’ responses led to the project’s use in all public schools in Abu Dhabi and encouraged its use in private schools, Mr Balabanian said. 

Spatial thinking helps pupils understand why events happen and their connection to location, he said. 

The critical-thinking skills could help children in real-life scenarios, such as why they might open a shop in one location instead of another.

Incorporating GIS into primary and secondary education is very important for children’s development of spatial thinking, said Nazmi Saleous, associate professor of remote sensing and GIS at UAE University.

More work is always needed to improve pupils’ spatial skills, Mr Saleous said, though he has noticed an improvement in his own students since last year, perhaps because of services like GPS and Google Maps.

Practical applications that supplement theoretical knowledge help engage pupils when learning these skills, he said. Programmes help the skills “stick to the mind much more than the theory itself”.

“Kids, especially in schools, like to play with computers,” Mr Saleous said.

GIS is also crucial to other aspects of education, experts said, such as in school transportation.

Adec is incorporating GIS into administration for projects including a system for monitoring and planning bus routes to reduce time pupils spend on buses, Mr Balabanian said.

Academics are also incorporating the technology into higher education to further develop high-tech expertise in the region.

“We are promoting GIS in research activities and also as a curriculum in the department,” said Khaula Al Kaabi, chairwoman of the UAE University geography department.

One challenge for integrating GIS in academic research can be reluctance for organisations to provide data to researchers, an audience member said.

Academics should be treated differently than the public at large and have access to data for research purposes, but with a cautious approach, said Marko Komac, adviser on GIS and managing director of the firm OneGeology.

Experts have found that location technology is not only important to fields such as education, land management, geology and public health, but for businesses, said Vanessa Lawrence, secretary general of Ordnance Survey International, part of the British national mapping authority.

“We recognised that it was just as important to be training people in the insurance world and the advertising world as in the agriculture and land management worlds,” she said.

lcarroll@thenational.ae