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Facilitating Scientific Inquiry using CITYgreen and the Problem-Study Framework

Rita Hagevik

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The Problem-Study framework is an approach to learning and lesson design that identifies the strategies and skills that make science a form of creative, critical, and analytical thinking. This framework was used to design and analyze a place-based inquiry approach to learning about the environment where teachers and students used the CITYgreen software, an extension to ArcView 3.x by ESRI. Findings indicate that using the Problem-Study framework to guide the design and evaluation of the curriculum, as well as assessment of student learning, was successful. Teachers learned to build engaging, real-world projects to teach geography, enhance students' computer skills, improve math and science knowledge, and to develop an understanding of how ecosystems function. Studentsí problem-solving skills improved.


Research on the use of geospatial technologies in schools has shown that teachers and students are able to engage in data visualization and analysis, spatial interpretation, and real-world problem-solving (Alibrandi, 1998b; Alibrandi, Thompson, & Hagevik, 2000; Audet & Abegg, 1996; Baker, 2002; Hagevik, 2003; Hart, 1979; Kerski, 2000; McWillimas & Rooney, 1997). A recent report by the National Research Council (2006), Learning to Think Spatially, states that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has the ability to meet four educational goals: (1) support the inquiry process; (2) be useful in solving problems in a wide range of real-world contexts; (3) facilitate learning across a range of school subjects; and (4) provide a rich, generative, inviting and challenging problem-solving environment (p. 176). Additional research has further documented other important benefits of using GIS, such as increased motivation (McWillimas & Rooney, 1997), self-efficacy and attitudes toward technology (Baker, 2002), acquisition of spatial analysis skills (Audet & Abegg, 1996), increased mathematics ability (Coulter, 2003; Coulter & Polman, 2004), and geographic and scientific content knowledge (Alibrandi, 1998a; Kerski, 2003). For more than a decade, educators and researchers have developed curriculum while simultaneously focusing on teacher professional development. Professional development efforts have engaged large numbers of teachers and provided compelling classroom examples of the potential of GIS to enhance teaching and learning. Table 1 illustrates available curricular materials, educational projects, and types of GIS software being used by teachers.

Table 1 Major GIS Software Products and Curricular Projects

* Freeware

Teachers and other advocates of using geospatial technologies in schools state that what makes these technologies different and particularly compelling is that students are able to interact with dynamic visual displays of real-world data which provides them with an opportunity to develop fluency in visual representations of data, quantitative data analysis and experience in database techniques (Edelson, Gordin, & Pea, 1999). Despite this enthusiasm, Kerski (2003) found that in a survey of more than 1500 high school teachers who had purchased GIS software, 45% of them had not used GIS, and another 15% had no plans of using it. Of those who had used GIS, only 30% had used it in more than one lesson. A report by the GEODE Initiative of Northwestern University (Edelson & Moeller, 2004) identified significant challenges facing teachers and students in their use of GIS software in the school computing environment. These challenges include the following: (1) access to appropriate hardware and software, (2) technical and administrative support, and (3) integration of GIS into the curriculum. To address the challenge of integration into the curriculum, a Problem-Study framework (Hagevik, 2003; Swartz, Fischer, & Parks, 1998) has been developed in which CITYgreen (American Forests, 2002), a GIS extension, is being used by teachers and students nationally. The School Environmental Education Program by American Forests (2007) provides professional development, software, curriculum, support, partnerships, and continued technical assistance, which addresses the first two challenges.

Problem-Study Framework

The Problem-Study framework is an approach to learning and lesson design that identifies the strategies and skills that make science a form of creative, critical, and analytical thinking. It is based on research in (1) constructivism (Wertsch, 1985) in which change occurs as the students integrate concepts into a conceptual schema and transform the experience into a coherent system (Howe, 1996); (2) critical thinking in which strategies for skillful thinking are made explicit (Swartz & Fischer, 2001); and (3) problem-based learning (Tosteson, Adelstein, & Carver, 1994) in which opportunities are given to investigate realistically complex situations (Sternberg, 2001). The framework is built around three phases (see Table 2).

Table 2 Overview of the Problem-Study Framework







Students generate questions based on present situation.

Creative and critical list of many questions.


Students are curious about the present situation and elicit possible solutions.

Purpose, interest and need as well as curiosity about situation. Ideas on possible solutions.



Students find information based on their questions and interests from primary and secondary sources.

Students refine, add to, or change questions or ideas about possible solutions.


Students directly observe, measure, and test possible solutions.

Students begin to relate experiences to problem solutions.



Students model and visualize possible solutions based on consequences and their value.

Students practice and construct relationships based on evidences and their consequences and value.


Students generate the best solutions to the situation.

Students are able to explain how their solutions are based on consequences and value using evidence.


New ideas

Students explain and interpret their findings.

Students come up with new solutions, new ideas, and future questions based on the knowledge they have constructed.


Students apply their new ideas.

Students test new ideas directly or indirectly.



Students analyze their solutions and prioritize their findings based on the consequences and their value.

Students report their analyses and findings based on their new knowledge to their peers.


Students apply their understandings to other contexts.

Students are able to explain why the solutions they chose are the best based on their new understandings and knowledge.


Students reflect upon their thinking and their learning.

Students can describe how they thought about the problem and can describe other ways in which they might use this type of thinking and learning.


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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
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Volume 11, Issue 1, 2008
ISSN 1097-9778
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