Online mapping tools have demonstrated the power of maps for explaining a wide variety of concepts including current events and earth processes. Paper maps are increasingly rare and every student with a computer connected to the internet has seen a satellite image of his home and school. However, training the next generation of environmental scientists to use maps to effectively make environmental decisions requires more than understanding how to read a map. At the same time as online maps have grown in popularity, especially for use in classrooms, geographic information science (GIS) has become more specialized, requiring a greater variety of skills and expensive software. Designing effective teaching methods, at its most basic level, is often thought by instructors to require access to software only available on college campuses. If software is available, spatial data sets are difficult to find, require manipulation prior to use (e.g., re-projection, georeferencing, etc.), or are accompanied by inadequate metadata. Finally, effective scientific communication using GIS maps requires a unique set of skills to which most students are never properly exposed.
To help bridge this gap, we developed a geographic database for the Potomac River Basin (PRB) that is ideally suited for use in high school to graduate level environmental science classrooms. The PRB is the appropriate size for use on most personal computers, yet contains a wide variety of land uses and pressing environmental issues. Formatted for use on an open source GIS software package, QGIS, the PRB data set covers socioeconomic variables, hydrologic landscape features including water quality data, and multiple types of land cover data. We designed an educational workshop in which students developed their own questions concerning the spatial relationships between these variables, relevant to modern environmental decisions. Working in small groups, the students generated maps, graphs, and tables; we then provided instruction on the use of scientific diagrams for explaining the complex environmental processes they were studying. Throughout the two-day workshop the students completed a full scientific investigation and presented their results. The total lecture time by the faculty was less than 10% of the workshop, freeing instructors to work with small groups of students, tailoring their discussion to the most relevant topics. We have made the data set available on EcoEdDL for download.