Unit Digital Mapping and Geographic Information Systems

Two photos: A map of the world in Mercator projection with latitude and longitude made to look like different pieces of iron. A GPS unit being used in a car traveling somewhere in Norway judging by the road map track on the screen.
Maps visualize and indicate desired locations.
Copyright © Both photos are public domain from Stock XCHNG


Geographic information systems (GIS), once used predominantly by experts in cartography and computer programming, have become pervasive in everyday business and consumer use. This unit explores GIS in general as a technology about which much more can be learned, and it also explores applications of that technology. Students experience GIS technology through the use of Google Earth on the environmental topic of plastics in the ocean in an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The use of this topic in GIS makes the unit multidisciplinary, incorporating the physics of ocean currents, the chemistry associated with pollutant degradation and chemical sorption to organic-rich plastics, and ecological impact to aquatic biota.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

GIS is a tool used in many different engineering disciplines, including environmental, petroleum, ocean and civil. GIS often involves looking at large datasets to draw conclusions from spatial patterns. And GIS is essential in planning of engineering projects. Nearly any engineering that is in some way connected with field-based projects used GIS in some way.

Unit Overview

This unit is divided into two main thrusts. Part 1 addresses GIS in general. This topic is covered most heavily in Lesson 1, "What is GIS?" and Lesson 2, "Projections and Coordinates: Turning a 3D Earth into Flatlands." Additionally, Activity 1, "Who Can Make the Best Coordinate System?," Activity 2, "What's Wrong with the Coordinates at the North Pole?," and Activity 4, "Searching for Bigfoot and Others Lke Him" help supplement this first part of the unit.

Part 2 of the unit includes Lesson 3, "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch," and Activity 3, "Plastic in the Ocean: Get the Word Out at McDonalds!," Activity 5, "Where Are the Plastics Near Me? (Field Trip)" and Activity 6, "Where Are the Plastics Near Me? (Mapping the Data)." These focus more on using GIS for a particular application: the study and representation of data related to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

If the teacher wishes to simply give students exposure to GIS and digital mapping concepts, then use all or some of Lessons 1-2 and Activities 1-2, 4 without reference to any of the environmental concerns of the other half of the unit.

If, however, the teacher is more interested in the environmental side of the unit and less in the GIS aspects, then all or parts of Lesson 3 and Activities 3 and 5 go far in exposing students to an environmental issue that relates to their own community. Following this more environmental approach, students are asked to understand scientific information that they find on their own, evaluate its usefulness, and give credit to its source.

Activity 6 is the exercise that puts together both what students are expected to learn from the GIS side of the unit and the solid waste environmental side.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

See individual lessons and activities for standards alignment.


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Unit Schedule

More Curriculum Like This

Middle School Lesson
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) is an intriguing and publicized environmental problem. Through exploring this complex issue, students gain insight into aspects of chemistry, oceanography, fluids, environmental science, life science and even international policy.

Middle School Activity
Where Are the Plastics Near Me? (Field Trip)

Through an adult-led field trip, students organized into investigation teams catalogue the incidence of plastic debris in different environments. They investigate these plastics according to their type, age, location and other characteristics that might indicate what potential they have for becoming...

Middle School Activity
Plastic in the Ocean: Get the Word Out at McDonalds!

Students take part in a hypothetical scenario that challenges them to inform customers at a local restaurant of how their use and disposal of plastics relates/contributes to the Great Pacific garbage patch (GPGP).


Activity 6 is the culmination of all of the information in the entire unit and could be used as a summary assessment. If desired, you could give an exam that covers all of the unit concepts (not included). But, since GIS is so application focused, it is recommended that students are assessed more on their correct use of it and understanding of their results rather than being specifically tested on GIS concepts in a more formal way.

A photo shows a small aluminum pie plate containing tiny white, yellow, and black plastic "pebbles."  A chemical line structure shows tow aromatic rings connected by a single carbon-to-carbon bond. On the points of the hexagonal rings are position numbers that indicate where single chlorines can attach in different combinations.
Nurgles (left) are small bits of plastic debris broken down from sunlight and ocean waves. These examples were collected from beach sands near Bolsa Chica and Newport Beaches in California. The plastic bits are often confused for food by fish and birds and carry contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), shown in generic chemical structure (right).
Copyright © National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration {PD} http://marinedebrisgov.blogspot.com/search/label/Nurdles


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2010 University of Houston


Nathan Howell; Andrey Koptelov

Supporting Program

National Science Foundation GK-12 and Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Programs, University of Houston


This digital library content was developed by the University of Houston's College of Engineering under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant number DGE-0840889. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: February 17, 2018

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