Curricular Unit: Digital Mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

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

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.

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.

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Educational Standards

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  • Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per-capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth's systems. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
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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, "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.

Unit Schedule


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}


Nathan Howell; Andrey Koptelov


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

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: May 19, 2017