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By Bill McGarigle

Contributing Editor

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"Students that come out of Chelsea High School with this knowledge are far ahead of anybody else -- they're ahead of professional department managers who haven't had some of the training these students have had."

This comment by Allan Alpert, director of Emergency Management for Chelsea, Mass., reflects his assessment of a successful educational experiment in which a beginning GIS class teamed up with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) to help the community meet federally-mandated guidelines for emergency preparedness and response capabilities. Based on the benefits to all involved, the project -- the first of its kind in the country -- might well become a model curriculum for integrating GIS into secondary education.

The tiny, 1.8-square-mile city of Chelsea is home to 30,000, predominantly blue-collar workers on Boston's northeast border. Long known as a first home for immigrants, it is also one of the poorest communities in the state, with a per capita income of $11,559. Its school district, on the verge of financial collapse in 1989, was put under the management of Boston University. In 1991, the city itself slid into bankruptcy and was taken over by the state. A subsequent FBI investigation into corruption resulted in the indictment of three former mayors.

However, with financial assistance from the state and continued management by B.U., Chelsea is gradually turning things around. In 1995, the city emerged from receivership, and in 1996, it opened three new educational complexes; one combining four separate elementary schools; another combining two middle schools; and one high school -- the first public schools built in the city in 87 years.

Complimenting the opening of the new Chelsea High School (CHS) was an introductory course in GIS, which was put together by Walter Paul, an ex-cabinet maker-turned-teacher, and Bill Hamilton, a geography guru from nearby Salem State College.

Inspired by Dr. Richard Audet, assistant professor of Education at Roger Williams University, Paul took a GIS course in the summer of 1996 that was conducted by Hamilton. By the end of the summer, and with the enthusiastic support of CHS, Paul installed a spatial learning lab with 22 new computers, a printer, scanner, plotter and two laptops. With grant support from B.U., he persuaded Hamilton to come onboard half time as a consultant. In the fall, CHS had an elective, two-semester GIS course and a fully-equipped computer lab.

Curriculum Meets Community Needs

The first semester introduced the computers and basic GIS skills. Students began with computer literacy and Windows 95 and then moved into GIS with ArcView 3.0. Combined lectures and labs ran five hours a week. Paul was assisted by Hamilton and Laurie Berger, an undergraduate student working on a combined degree in GIS and education at Salem State.

During an inspection of the new school facilities, HAZMAT (Hazardous Material) Fire Captain Bill Sullivan asked if the class could assist the community in collecting and entering information into databases for the Local Emergency Planning Committee.

The information was needed to meet federally-mandated guidelines for emergency-response and preparedness capabilities. All federal, state and local governments with hazardous materials in their jurisdictions are required by the Emergency Planning and Community Right-To-Know Act to develop such capabilities. They are also required to conduct an EPA-observed simulated response to a HAZMAT incident.

EPA Software

The software system designed to facilitate these requirements is CAMEO (Computer Aided Management of Emergency Operations), a Windows-based GIS developed by the EPA and NOAA. CAMEO has a built-in information database of 6,000 chemicals and is linked to a mapping program called MARPLOT (Mapping Application for Response and Planning of Local Operational Tasks) and ALOHA (Areal Locations of Hazardous Atmospheres), a program that plots toxic plumes by using meteorological and chemical data. Both