Oct 31 2006

It's a Small (Tech) World

Geography students bypass traditional maps in favor of cutting-edge tools that make learning an adventure.

In classrooms around the country, cutting-edge technology is changing the way teachers present geography to their students. The tools they use include geographic information system (GIS) and global positioning system (GPS) technology.

GIS enables computer users to query or analyze a database and get the results in the form of a map. GIS allows a wide range of data sets—everything from road networks to urban mapping and demographic data—to be stored and combined.

GPS technology, which relies on satellites that orbit the Earth, makes it possible for people with ground receivers to pinpoint their geographic location. If the receiver has a display screen, the position can be shown on a map. In some instances, the GPS user can even determine the altitude, speed and direction of travel.

Put the two technologies together and dramatic possibilities for teaching geography start to unfold. Geography changes from a study of static maps to an active participation in creating new ones.

“One of the best things about using GIS and GPS technology in the classroom is that the students are doing real geography,” says MaryAnna Taylor, a former middle-school world geography teacher who recently retired as project coordinator at the Delaware Geography Alliance (DGA), which operates out of the department of geography at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del.

“GIS and GPS allow students to see the connections among history and geography, language arts, science and math. That’s the message we have to bring to teachers.”

The DGA, an organization of teachers, administrators and college geographers, helps to bring the technology tools—and the skills to use them—into Delaware’s classrooms. Throughout the year, a team of DGA geography, economics, history and civics experts travels to school districts to give workshops and professional training to social studies educators.

“I think the benefits [of GIS and GPS devices]—and several teachers who have been using this technology have said the same—are that their operation involves the five A’s of geography: ask, acquire, arrange, analyze and answer,” Taylor says.

The theme is a recurring one among educators: GIS and GPS technologies get students involved and make them think about the data they’ve gathered before they build real-world applications to use that data.

A Shared Experience

The experience of educators in Illinois is very similar. Ed Gorny, a technology teacher at Jefferson Junior High School in Woodridge, Ill., was so enthusiastic about this technology that he and his wife, Nancy, founded GIS2GPS to bring geographic tools to schools in the state.

GIS2GPS, which is also located in Woodridge, Ill., runs teacher-training courses, including “GIS2GPS Adventure.” The organization also operates a Web site (www.GIS2GPS.com) and works with local governments and other agencies to develop GIS and GPS projects for the classroom.

“Teacher feedback is great,” says Gorny, who is a recognized K-12 GIS trainer. “The popularity of our classes says a lot. We operate with a trainer-to-teacher ratio of between 1 to 8 and 1 to 10. We don’t let people fall behind, and we are always there for support, even after the classes have ended. After all, GIS just can’t be learned in one day.”

“For students, GIS and GPS are real—real data, real events,” Gorny adds. “In some cases, they’re even assisting local governments in collecting data. GIS and GPS make students think beyond data collection and mapping.”

GPS Mapping Projects

In southern Delaware’s Caesar Rodney School District, Mary Schoettinger, a fifth-grade teacher at Star Hill Elementary School, recently introduced her students to the basics of GPS technology. She uses handheld units that incorporate a 12-channel GPS receiver capable of pinpointing a position within 10 feet or less of its location. The units also can receive enhanced data from the Wide Area Augmentation System, which gives even better position accuracy. In addition, the receivers can act as two-way radios.

“I am fascinated by GPS technology,” Schoettinger confesses. “I received a grant, and I spent it on some GPS units. We had studied latitude and longitude already, so I showed my students how that works on their GPS units.”

Schoettinger is now planning a scavenger hunt on school grounds to give her students a feel for the full potential of GPS technology.

A more extensive GIS and GPS project called Main Street was the brainchild of Jacqui Wilson, a consultant with DGA and the Providence Creek Academy in Clayton, Del., and an adjunct faculty member at Wilmington College in New Castle, Del. She has 30 years of experience teaching middle-school geography and an extensive knowledge of GIS and GPS instruction.

In 2001, Wilson’s Main Street project studied downtown Smyrna, Del., and looked primarily at building use during the past 50 years. Her students used handheld units to take GPS readings in the doorway of each building.

With the help of a GIS worker in Dover, Del., the students matched their readings with GIS files. They were then able to create different views of the downtown file by parcel, color-coded according to whether the property was residential, business or vacant.

“This project could have been done with paper and pencil,” Wilson says, “but it would have taken a lot longer. Plus, I don’t think the students would have had the same enthusiasm.”

For another project, Wilson combined a study of geography with the environment. Students took GPS readings of land areas around Smyrna and sent them to the Chesapeake Bay and Mid-Atlantic From Space Web site, chesapeake.towson.edu, of Towson University near Baltimore. The site uses data from the Landsat Project, a joint initiative of the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and from Landsat 7, a satellite operated by NASA as part of its Earth Science Enterprise.

Students used the GPS points to compare the change of images that Landsat 7 took of the Chesapeake Bay over time for environmental purposes. These same points were used to create a GIS project showing the increase in housing developments and the loss of farmland in the Smyrna and Cheswold areas in Delaware.

“The educational value of these projects was outstanding,” Wilson says. “GIS and GPS activities are usually open-ended and involve higher-order thinking. You’re not just answering questions; you’re analyzing, comparing and solving problems.”

Emmet Cole is an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer who specializes in technology, business and education.

Tips for Teaching GIS and GPS

Make a smooth transition to teaching geography with the help of technology with these useful tips:

1. Teach geographic information system and global positioning system principles separately. Jacqui Wilson of the Delaware Geography Alliance (DGA) suggests teaching GIS first to give students a basic understanding before moving on to GPS.

2. Incorporate GPS into the curriculum without compromising obligations to the state’s social studies curriculum guidelines.

3. Ensure that teachers get adequate training. Find organizations like the DGA or GIS2GPS that operate in your state to offer support and training for teachers.

4. Talk with teachers who specialize in other subject areas about introducing GIS and GPS technologies together. These technologies can bring added value to a range of subjects—from history and math to science and arts.

5. Introduce this technology to students at the appropriate time: simple GIS maps in second grade and GPS technology in fourth or fifth grade.