GIS for Environmental Education:
A Pilot ArcView Application for the Journey North Program

Andy Lyons
URP6272, University of Florida
April 1998


This project focused on the use of GIS for environmental education through the development of a pilot ArcView application to be used in conjunction with the Journey North program. Journey North is a K-12 web-based environmental education program which focuses on events which mark seasonal changes such as animal migrations. Students throughout North America collect and submit data on seasonal events to a master database on the Journey North web site. The ArcView application developed for this project provides user-friendly tools to map and analyze student-collected data from the Journey North database.


GIS and Environmental Education

Geographic Information System (GIS) software has proven to be a useful tool in both formal and non-formal environmental education programs. Although still not widely used in schools compared with other educational technologies, GIS has been shown to be a beneficial tool which can be used to analyze and integrate a variety of data pertaining to environmental issues. This is an attractive feature in a field characterized by a trend toward the use multi-disciplinary methods in the study of environmental issues. As GIS software, hardware, and training continue to become more accessible to schools, teachers, and students, we can expect to see a continued increase in the use of GIS for environmental education.

Journey North

Journey North (JN) is an internet-based environmental education program serving kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) students. Over 100,000 K-12 students from all over the world are exposed to the program, but the majority are located in North America. The educational philosophy of Journey North is to involve students directly in the measurement and recording of events which mark seasonal changes (e.g., animal migrations), which provides a focus for studying the underlying natural systems. The program supports classroom teachers primarily via a teachers guide and internet resources. The internet resources include a mailing list whereby students share reports of seasonal events with other parts of the country, communicate with collaborating research scientists involved in the project, and participate in online quizzes and other activities. The Journey North web site ( provides an interface for students to enter their observations of seasonal events into the master database, read background material and reports from other schools and scientists, and view or download maps or other data on seasonal events.

Examples of seasonal changes that are tracked by the JN program include the date of the first tulip blooming, monarch butterfly migrations, first frog singing, first sighting of a robin, and the emergence of leaf buds. The majority of observations in the database are submitted by students, however some data (e.g., whale satellite telemetry data) is submitted by collaborating research biologists.

GIS and Journey North

The Journey North program offers an excellent opportunity to test the effectiveness of GIS to enhance the educational component of an environmental education program. It is reasonable to predict that students would respond enthusiastically to this type of program supplement because (i) Journey North offers a large data set created almost exclusively by fellow students around the continent, (ii) students find GIS software in general to be "fun" to use, (iii) students can work with data that has been recently collected against a backdrop of a variety of base layers.

The overall goal for this project was to develop a pilot GIS application utilizing data from Journey North and targeted to students. There are several ways this type of GIS application could be delivered to schools. Environmental Systems Research Institute's (ESRI) Internet Map Server allows access to a GIS application with an ordinary web browser. The main advantage of this delivery strategy is that it can reach a large audience and permit the fastest turnaround time between data submission and dissemination, while the primary disadvantage might be in restricted performance. Alternately, a GIS application could be developed to run on a personal computer, using prepackaged data and requiring only supplementary JN data sets downloaded from the web. The advantage of this approach would be maximum performance for the user, while the main disadvantage would be a large reduction the size of the potential audience (i.e., restricted to only those schools that have the hardware, software, and training to use GIS on their own).

As far as a development environment, JN data is almost exclusively point data and could be integrated into almost any GIS software package. However the two most logical choices for this project were ESRI's ArcView or a another object oriented programming language that can utilize ESRI's Map Objects controls, such as Access or Visual Basic. For this project, I developed an application using ArcView, ESRI's premier software tool for GIS viewing and analysis. ArcView is a logical choice for software development because ESRI products dominate GIS software in schools, is cross-platform (many schools use Macs), is reasonably customizable through the Avenue programming language, and is supported by ESRI's GIS for Schools and Libraries program. Regardless of the development environment or delivery mechanism, the content and design of a GIS application based on JN data and designed for students will be quite similar. Furthermore, once a pilot application is developed, conversion to a different software or delivery strategy will be relatively straightforward.


The specific objectives of this project were to:


Because this application is intended to be a supplementary tool for an existing program, understanding the educational context of the JN program and the nature of the available data must be tackled prior to any software development. Journey North's teachers guide and web site offer many sample activities, challenge questions, background materials, and lesson plans which focus on the seasonal phenomenon which form the focus of the program. One can classify the resource materials and suggested lessons into several categories. Some activities focus primarily on the biology of individual species and the influences of seasonal cycles. Others activities emphasize the importance of and methods for standardized measurement and data recording. Still others are geared toward subjects in the humanities such as art or creative writing. A few activities deal directly with mapping or charting data from the JN database. In general, most of the educational resources available from Journey North program appear to be targeted towards elementary and middle school programs.

As a comparison, Journey North's sister program, Project Monarch Watch, is similar in its educational objectives and delivery strategy, but focuses only on the biannual migration of Monarch butterflies between Central Mexico and Canada. Their teachers' guide and web site offer many of the same types of activities and lesson materials as the Journey North program. An interesting component of Project Monarch Watch, and one that lends itself especially well to GIS analysis, is a student tagging program whereby individual butterflies are tagged with little stickers and recorded if recaptured.

When classes enter data on the Journey North web site, it is saved in a master database via a cgi program. Fields in this database include date, latitude, longitude, type of animal or event, observer's name, teacher, grade, school, and comments. Hence the data is essentially all point data, which is saved in a tab-delimited text file.

Based on the nature of the data and the educational objectives and context of JN, I identified three areas where a GIS application could potentially further the educational mission of JN:

After defining the educational objectives and technical parameters for a GIS application for JN, I proceeded to develop a pilot ArcView project which I called the Journey North Data Explorer. Because one of the educational objectives for this project is to provide tools to allow students to look for patterns within migration data as well as in conjunction with other layers, I downloaded the following themes from ESRI's web site to package with the application:

  • Political borders for the US, Mexico, and Canada
  • Rivers for the US, Mexico, and Canada
  • Major cities
  • US Federal lands
  • Population density
  • Transportation network density
  • Annual precipitation
  • Vegetation
  • Soils
  • Land modification
  • Climate zones
  • Production lands
  • Fault lines
  • Elevation

Although the variables represented by many of these layers may not have anything to do with seasonal changes in natural systems, this does not negate the benefit of going through the process of using GIS to graphically compare and contrast disparate data sets.

The application I developed makes extensive use of the dialog designer extension, which can be downloaded for free from ESRI. However because one of my objectives was to ensure this application will work with existing configurations at schools, I avoided use of the Spatial Analyst extension which some schools may not have because of the additional cost.


To achieve its objectives, the Journey North Data Explorer ArcView application contains the following features and enhancements:

Project window

The Project window has an additional menu with two items. The New Journey North View menu item will create and open a new view, with the familiar political borders of North America This view can then be used as the basis for adding migration data or other base layers. The About menu item will display a dialog about the project.

In order to minimize accidental or intentional tampering with the application, the dialog and script documents are not visible in the Project window. This method offers modest security and yet still allows relatively easy access to these documents for future editing.

View window

The View GUI contains a new menu called Journey North.

The first item on this menu, New Journey North View performs the same function as its counterpart n the Project GUI. Migration Data open the migration data control panel, described below.

Make layout from view opens the layout template manager and allows the user to choose which type of layout they want to create for the current view. There is one layout template designed especially for Journey North

The Base Layers menu item opens up a dialog where the user can choose from a list of available themes to add to the view (see above)

Other data allows the user to add themes that are dynamically created based on text files of point data. Currently there is only layer available, Monarch Watch Capture-Recapture data. Weather station data would be a logical addition to this menu, as there is a lot of weather data available for downloading from the internet, including a large dataset of student collected data from the GLOBE program (, which could be plotted in much the same manner as other point data.

Project Monarch Watch Capture-Recapture Data

Migration Data Control Panel

The Migration Data Control Panel is the main interface for adding and manipulating themes created dynamically from the Journey North database. With this dialog, users can query the database by event and date, select symbology, and identify observation points. The dialog has been designed to be intuitive and easy to use, but additionally users can shift + click on any button to get a more detailed description of the feature.

The combo box at the top shows all events in the database, while the list box shows the number of observations by month for the selected event. By choosing the appropriate event and month(s), students can customize their content of their themes. The Make Theme button will create an event theme with the specified parameters and add it to the view.

After the user has created a theme of migration data, the Color Points by Date button will classify the theme according to date of each point. The user can create classification intervals based on a total number of intervals or length of each interval in days, and choose which color scheme to use.

Data points can be classified by length of interval or number of intervals

After classifying observation points by date, the user can click the Create Ovals button to make a series of ovals which represent the center of the geographic range of observation points for each interval in the classification.

The height and width of the ovals are based on the standard deviation, multiplied by a user-specified factor, of each set of points as grouped by the legend classification. Using the dialog, users can experiment with different values for the coefficient of the standard deviation.

The Delete Graphics button on the Migration Data Control Panel will delete any ovals saved as graphics on the active theme(s).

The Chart button will create a chart of the active theme, plotting latitude against date.

The Identification tool on the Migration Data Control Panel is similar to the ArcView Identification tool, however if the user clicks on a JN data point the fields are displayed in a easy-to-read dialog:

View GUI Buttons

Most of the new enhancements in the JN Data Explorer are designed to allow a user to experiment with creating themes for different data and legends. To help manage these new themes and their appearance in the view, the following buttons have been added to the view button bar:

  • Rename theme - renames the active theme
  • Delete theme - removes the active theme(s) from the view, and if the theme is based on a shapefile, gives the user the option of deleting the shapefile as well
  • Toggle legend visibility - this button toggles the visibility of the legend of the active theme(s) in the view TOC.
  • Move theme up/down - these two buttons will move the selected theme(s) to the top or bottom of the view TOC. If more than one theme is active when this button is clicked, the relative order of the themes is preserved when they are moved to their new position.

The Import button allows the user to add to the database new data in the form of a file of point data download from Journey North. (Note Journey North does not currently offer such updated files on its web site, but it would be relatively easy for them to do so). The import script appends the new data to the local dbf file that the application uses to create the event themes. The import script also summarizes the data by calculating the frequency of each event per month, which is then saved in a separate table and used to fill the Month(s) list box on the control panel.

File Management

Behind-the-scenes file management is an important feature in any application intended for a broad audience. Many computer users don't really understand how computers save files, and without built-in precautions an application could create a situation where a hard drive fills up with temporary files or run-time errors occur because a certain drive is write-protected. The Journey North Data Explorer has several built-in features to guard against these problems.

Comments and Error checking

The scripts in this project have been heavily commented and variable names reflect the class and function of the object they represent. I also strove to incorporate error checking in all aspects of the application. Hopefully these measures will assist others who continue to develop this application for the Journey North program.


Based on the objectives for this project, the Journey North Data Explorer is a solid step towards advancing the use of GIS in environmental education. From an educational standpoint, the application provides students with tools to explore JN data, experiment with different methods for mapping and analysis, and overlay data with a number of base layers. From a technical perspective, the application is easy to use yet flexible, reasonably robust, compatible with existing systems at schools and Journey North, and can be easily modified to incorporate new functions or data.


This work has highlighted several areas for future endeavors:

Acknowledgments and final remarks

I am grateful to Joel Halvorson of Journey North for providing me with the 1997 Journey North data set and sharing his experiences and thoughts on the use of GIS and Journey North. I would also like to thank Elizabeth Donnelly, Journey North Program Director, for her interest and support of this project. I hope that this work will contribute to their efforts to explore new directions for Journey North, and encourage other computer-minded graduate students in environmental education or GIS to consider this area as a topic for a thesis or dissertation.

Appendix I - Scripts

Complete scripts are also available.