Finding a Place on the Map

Students learn the value of GIS as a teaching tool.

by / June 30, 1999
When teacher and resident GIS expert Vince Wray left Shelley High School, in Shelley, Idaho, in 1994, science teacher Mike Winston was, as he put it, "up the creek." The two had constructed a projects-based science course in which students identified and solved actual community problems.

Wray was the GIS teacher, while Winston covered general science. The two also helped establish summer sessions of the course at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL), in nearby Idaho Falls.

Although his experience with ArcView was limited, Winston knew the value of GIS as a teaching tool. He saw the excitement in students learning to use it, and was convinced the technology could make any subject interesting. The challenge was to find a way to continue teaching it.

Student Mentoring Program

"My best option was to develop a student mentoring program in which experienced GIS students would teach the basics to beginners," Winston said. The idea was a winner.

The program, now in its fifth year, has opened career doors many students had not thought possible. For others, it has been an exciting medium for exploring career interests. Despite a professed "rudimentary understanding" of GIS, Winston later developed new curricula and lesson plans incorporating ArcView into a broad range of applications. To ensure support for the program, he wrote grants making it possible to pay former students to return and teach part time.

Professional guidance came from Gene Heaton, senior GIS analyst at INEEL and owner of DG Associates, an AutoCad/GIS training and applications consulting firm in Idaho Falls. Winston and Wray met Heaton in 1994 during a training program at INEEL, and enlisted his help in promoting GIS at the high school. "He has been an incredible resource," Winston said. "He also introduced us to Charlie Fitzpatrick at ESRI, who supplied us with software, technical information and a lot of encouragement."

"Gene has been our mentor and troubleshooter," added Jessica Winston, now a part-time teacher's aide in her father's science class. "When we run into problems, Gene helps us work through them. If we don't have the software we need, we take our work to him and he uses his system to get the data for us."

Several students who learned ArcView from their peers went on to teach others and work on projects for local government agencies. They developed GIS tutorials and created innovative programs as part of their work in other classes, including English, history, math and geography.

They made class presentations of their work in those subjects. Students also developed their own projects. One student's project was submitted to Geo Challenge, the National Geographic-ESRI-sponsored competition that rewards excellence in independent geographic research by students in grades nine through 12.

Students Creating Tutorials

Student teachers recognized that the tutorials packaged with ArcView did not hold the interest of beginners, so they created their own. Jessica Winston, then a senior, wrote explanations of the different functions of ArcView and how they worked. Another student, Cassie Searle, created a tutorial for beginners; a game in which users decipher a series of clues leading to the identity of countries and cultures around the globe.

The goal is to find and stop "Duke Nucem," an elusive international terrorist threatening to blow up the world. The process takes the beginner through many of the basic steps and functions of ArcView. Since its creation, the program become one of the introductory GIS tutorials in Winston's science class. Students intending to do in-depth projects also use the ArcView tutorials

After learning ArcView last January from Searle, Chris Bohman, a junior, developed another GIS tutorial that teaches elements of math, geometry, geography and geology. Users are given the speed of waves generated by an earthquake, and their respective arrival times at three different capitals -- which users must locate -- around the globe.

Users must pinpoint the epicenter of the quake using time-distance calculations. Radii from the different capitals describe three overlapping circles, or sets. The area common to each represents the epicenter of the quake. If the user's calculations are correct, clicking on that area brings up a bold "CONGRATULATIONS." This summer, Bohman will teach GIS to students and teachers alike, using the tutorials he and others developed.

Outside Projects

As students became proficient with ArcView and GIS, Wray, and later Winston and Heaton, arranged to provide limited GIS services at no charge to local government agencies. Over a three-year period, students analyzed well-water data and generated maps for the Department of Water Resources.

They developed a district proposal for a more efficient school bus route. They overlaid infrared imagery and boundaries on area maps to assist the Bureau of Land Management in resolving border issues with local farmers. After the flood of 1997, students worked under Heaton on a FEMA project, providing GPS coordinates and notations on the conditions of the Snake River dikes. They compiled maps and aerial photos, putting together a mosaic of the Bingham County flood plain showing where the flood waters had come through.

Jessica Winston said students also provided data for the district's rezoning project. "The district was using demographics and roads to redraw the school board's boundaries. After 50 hours of trying to do it by hand, they gave up and turned it over to the kids, who used the project as a way to learn ArcView. The students regenerated all the new zones for the district boundaries with an accuracy of plus or minus 4 percent. The guidelines required by the county were plus or minus 10 percent. They completed the project in 15 hours."

A project students are currently performing for the county involves locating and mapping noxious weeds in designated areas to determine the effectiveness of a statewide weed-eradication program. According to Heaton, the students are using an innovative approach. "They're generating a directory of all the weeds in their area, complete with coordinates and digital photos of the weeds in various stages of growth, all in a composite directory. Clicking on certain locations on the map brings up pictures of the weeds at various stages, and the information about them."

Applications For Other Classes

Students also developed innovative programs for their work in other classes, as well as research in their areas of interest. Sara Versey, a junior, showed how GIS could be used in studying Huckleberry Finn, required reading in her English class.

For extra credit, students could draw a map of the Mississippi River, putting in the locations and experiences of Huck and Jim on their rafting adventure. Versey saw the opportunity as a natural for GIS, and got her teacher's approval to develop a GIS map of the story's events.

She brought other students in on the project by having them produce the drawings and written summaries. She loaded these additions into a map database and set up icons users can click on to bring up artwork and text.

"I talked to all the teachers," Versey said, "and they had me come in and present the idea to their classes. Students who want to contribute artwork, literature or poetry to the project bring their materials to me by a certain date. After I have all the materials, I'll go back into the classes and do presentations on how to go in and click on the icons and hot links. Later, if they want to do this for extra credit in their classes, they will have the fundamental steps of how to get into the program."

She acknowledged that ArcView can be intimidating for beginners. "It's really scary when you first see this program. It's complex, but once you get into it and learn the basics, it doesn't take very long before you're flying through it. With the databases already loaded into it, you can see incredible amounts of information. Because it's visual, it's very effective, especially for students."

Research Findings

Winston said GIS students have also produced interesting research projects. "Sarah Toy, now in her third year of college, was interested in a career in health. Her GIS project involved mapping mortality rates from liver cancer in the U.S. and looking for patterns," he said. "What she turned up was an unusually high incidence of the disease among nonwhite females in western states. She broke those states down into counties with the highest rates, then overlaid maps of Native American reservations onto basemaps of those areas. What she found was incredibly high rates of liver cancer among Native American women on reservations. She published the map of her findings shortly after."

Another research project was performed by Michael Hamson, a junior, who began looking at leukemia rates in the United States. "He found maps of wind patterns associated with the nuclear tests in the Nevada desert and overlaid them onto states downwind of the test site," Winston said. "Every state in the pattern showed exceptionally high rates of leukemia." Winston added that Hamson did the project this semester for the Geo Challenge contest. "Now he's talking about using ArcView to develop a product his father can use in his construction business."

Program Pays Off

Heaton said the student mentoring program in GIS has been very successful in terms of learning and instilling confidence. "GIS students who had been underachievers increased their GPA, not only in Winston's class but in every other class they were in, and have since gone on to graduate."

"It has worked out better than I had hoped," Winston said of the mentoring program. As for teacher acceptance of GIS, he believes that will take time. "Although most are resistant to technology, once they see how excited the kids get, and how much they can learn from it, then they start getting excited. Another English teacher wants the students do a GIS project for The Iliad and The Odyssey.


Bill McGarigle is a writer, specializing in communications and information technology. He is based in Santa Cruz, Calif. email