Turn Your Students Into Data Sleuths With Geographic Information Systems

Science, technology, engineering, and math. As an educator, you have most likely already heard calls from the government pertaining to the need for educated students within these fields of study. In fact, reaching STEM goals in the classroom has become such a focus that in 2013 President Obama diverted over 3 billion dollars to additional STEM education funding nationwide.

Integrating STEM into the classroom, however, can be quite difficult because of both technical difficulties and a general lack of student interest. Fewer than half of all high school students tested are prepared for college level math and science. Furthermore, of those that do attend college and declare a STEM related major, approximately 38 percent end up going a different direction.

Some of the most successful teachers are those that are capable of finding interactive ways to encourage their students to become involved with the subjects by applying it to topics they are already interested in. For instance, a number of educators are turning to incorporating video games into subjects such as history, biology, and engineering.

An additional computer program that has recently begun to be adapted to high school level curriculums with great success is geographic information systems, or GIS for short.

Image from abc.net

Image from abc.net

What is GIS?

Geographic information systems are essentially large databases that are able to connect entered data to a geographical reference point. More than that though, the program can be used to display data visually, which allows scientists and GIS specialists to quite literally see connections that were previously hidden in the data.

It isn’t just a classroom tool used to aid in teaching the subject matter; GIS professionals can be found in almost every modern industry ranging from police departments using map data to find crime hot spots, to epidemiologists tracking diseases like Ebola in Africa, to insurance companies determining natural disaster risk. Integrating GIS into a STEM curriculum enables students to learn professional job skills before ever graduating.

To learn more about how geographic information systems can be used as a great jumping off point, let’s take a look at three real world examples from Eureka Springs High School, Washington-Lee High School, and Clark Magnet High School.

Emergency Landing Space in Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Teachers at Eureka Springs High School in Carroll County, Arkansas work tirelessly to give students the tools to avoid becoming one of the 19 percent of residents living below the poverty line. One way that they have been able to help is by giving their students the tools they need to participate in meaningful community development projects.

One of several projects completed in the classroom was a collaborative project with the County firefighters, first responders, and emergency personnel to create a map of possible emergency landing zones in northwestern Arkansas. Using GIS, the students identified locations with the appropriate slope, land features, and distance from buildings that could be used as landing zones. They also conferred with professionals to identify technical problems associated with difficult landings and patients. Finally, they used computer skills and no small level of creativity to consolidate all of this information into a map that could then be used by emergency personnel in real life situations.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this program is that it has enabled students to make significant positive changes within their own communities. For teens, sometimes having the ability to fix the problems they observe firsthand is the most powerful tool they can be given. That power can translate into a lifetime of projects that lead to a successful and happy life that benefits many people.

Identifying Wetlands for US Fish and Wildlife

High School teacher Ryan Miller at Washington-Lee High School in Virginia is a big fan of problem-based learning. Essentially, this approach involves developing collaborative relationships with professional organizations through James Madison University’s Geospatial Semester Program. Real world problems faced by these professionals are integrated into his classroom during the student’s semester project, in which they work closely with their chosen organizations to help create a solution.

One such project was completed by student, Albert Marquez, who worked with US Fish and Wildlife Service to create an updated map of the wetlands within government easements. In doing this, he learned a great deal about the ecology of wetlands and how important they are. Furthermore, he used land satellite imagery, infrared data, and creative GIS solutions to identify areas that corresponded with previously identified wetlands. Ultimately, he even got to present his findings at ESRI (a leader in GIS software) Annual International User’s Conference in 2012, which was a great point of pride for him.

The Geology of Disasters

Image from UCLA

Image from UCLA

Students at Clark Magnet High School are taking a number of classes taught by GIS and science teacher, Dominique Evans-Bye. Many of her classes are science-based, but are designed in a way that encourages students to learn GIS. A number of them have even won large awards and scholarships for their work.

The most successful of the classroom projects might just be “The Geology of Disasters”. In this project, students gathered data associated with rainfall and climate patterns in California and water removal channels throughout their county. They used this data to predict flood risk based on geographical data of the area and compared it to where schools were located. Their results showed that a number of elementary schools were within a thousand feet of flood-prone areas.

Following their discoveries, the students developed a public awareness campaign to teach parents and elementary-aged students about the risk of floods. Students reported that they felt as though all of these projects that they worked on made them more excited to participate in school activities because they were making a real difference in their communities.

In Short

These three projects are just a small sampling of the possible GIS-related classes that could be taught. Students that have been involved in these projects have reported feeling more excited about STEM related topics and really feel as though they are making a significant difference in their communities. Incorporating geographic information system technology into your classroom is a powerful way to teach these subjects and give students real world, marketable skills.

Brittni Brown is a recent graduate of The College of Idaho with a degree in environmental studies. She currently works for a local start up and plans on returning to graduate school for a Masters in GIS and natural resources. In her free time she enjoys outdoor activities and reading.