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Technology helps students break boundaries of geography


Dallas Morning News (10/26/2003)
By Kent Fischer

Ryan Nelson stopped in the middle of a bramble and looked down at his cellphone-sized computer. The device was talking to satellites that were tracking Ryan's position, marking his movements with a dark line that snaked across the screen.

Ryan and nine other students from Bishop Dunne Catholic School tromped across Kiest Park, guided by computers that recorded their routes. The result: 10 squiggly lines, each representing the path of one student. Later, the kids would use the exercise to help firefighters plan an effective search-and-rescue operation.

"They're solving a real-world problem," said Brad Baker, the students' geography teacher. "They're making their community a better place."

Welcome to the new geography.

Quietly, stodgy geography is undergoing a seismic transformation. Gone are the days of pull-down maps and the memorization of state capitals. Thanks to the Internet, global positioning satellites and the growing availability of sophisticated software, geography students today are tracking crime, evaluating real estate and investigating water pollution.

"It's another level of analysis," Mr. Baker said. "It's real science."

The shift mirrors the explosive growth of GIS – geographic information systems – in the military and the workplace.

In a nutshell, GIS computers allow users to take data from sources such as police crime reports and plot them on a digital map. Information can be mapped from other sources too, such as housing samples from the census or patrol routes from the police, to give a more comprehensive picture of neighborhood crime patterns. Before GIS, that data would probably have been best suited for simple graphs or tables.

Experts say there are few industries that aren't touched by GIS. City planners, for example, use it to predict growth trends and housing patterns. The military uses it to fight terrorism. Retail corporations use it to help them decide where to open new stores. Forecasters use it to predict hurricanes.

"GIS is the best tool that geographers have created since the map itself," said Dr. Joseph Kerski of the U.S. Geological Survey. "This is one of the tools that kids will need to know in order to enter the job market, just like a spreadsheet is today."

Charitable use

You don't have to convince Cindy Lutz of that. She's the real estate director for Dallas Habitat for Humanity.

Years ago, the organization spent hundreds of man-hours driving through the city's neighborhoods and pulling government records before it launched a new project. Today, new Habitat sites are planned with the advice of Mr. Baker's students at Bishop Dunne.

For the nonprofit group, his students undertook a real estate analysis of the city. The kids downloaded tax records, street maps, DART maps, flood zone information, school reports and census information, and melded all of it onto a GIS map. The result: Students were able to tell Habitat where it should focus its next 60 projects.

The effort saved the organization a lot of dollars and hours, Mrs. Lutz said.

The students were able to "quantify what makes a Habitat neighborhood," Mrs. Lutz said. "It's really kind of incredible how they were able to zero in, visually, on where we need to go. I was totally unaware that this kind of technology was available."

In addition, Bishop Dunne students plot crime reports in southwest Dallas for the Police Department, which has adjusted its patrols based on the students' findings. The kids are also helping state park officials plan and organize search-and-rescue operations in Dinosaur Valley State Park.

Still catching on

Not every school's geography program is so advanced, however. ESRI, a California company that produces the most popular GIS software, estimates that only about 5,000 teachers nationwide are using the technology in their classrooms. But ESRI's Charlie Fitzpatrick says the walls are coming down, particularly in Texas, which is thought to be the only state to incorporate GIS into its curriculum standards.

The geography department at Texas State University-San Marcos is among the nation's biggest and best known. Yet most of its students weren't exposed to GIS in high school, said Dr. Jim Petersen, a professor there.

"It's still pretty new, and it takes a while" to filter down into K-12 schools, he said.
Three states – Montana, Utah and South Dakota – have recently obtained software licenses that will provide GIS capabilities to every school in those states. A dozen more states are negotiating for similar licenses, Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

"There's a lot of work that's been done" to get GIS into schools, he said, "but there's an unconscionable amount of work yet to go."

The key, educators and geographers say, is training teachers to use the GIS software and getting them to think about using it for community-based projects. Companies and governments are so desperate for GIS-trained workers that there is pressure to simply turn the technology into a vocational track.

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that the GIS industry will grow from $3 billion in revenues in 1997 to $21 billion in the next few years. And yet the field is so new that most job-training programs are not yet fully developed, the department said.

New interpretations

The challenge for K-12 educators, experts say, is to blend the best of the "old geography" with the new technology. For example, it's not enough to simply teach kids how to build fancy computer maps. Students still must be able to tease apart the underlying issues: How do people interact with their neighbors? What is the impact on the environment? What can be done to fix the problem?

"We're on the crest of a wave, and we see huge momentum," said Anita Palmer, a former teacher who co-authored a textbook on GIS. "But GIS is only a tool, and the greater need is to integrate it across all subjects: science, math, social studies. Otherwise we're looking at it becoming a vocational track only."

Others also fear that today's test-driven school systems won't fully embrace GIS' potential because the skills kids learn from it aren't easily measured by a standardized test.
"There is no shortage of data for projects," said Dr. Kerski of the U.S. Geological Survey. "But there is a shortage of teachers who are willing to say, 'Hey, I can do this.' "