Schools sample GIS maps the pros use

Montana officials are working with NASA and geographic information system software companies to allow every K-12 public school student and teacher in the state to view maps as never before.

The GIS-4-Montana education initiative was born of a deal inked this spring among the state, GIS software maker Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI), software vendor ERDAS Inc. and NASA's Earth Observing System (EOS) Education Project at the University of Montana. By the end of next year, students statewide will have the equipment to examine and analyze the world's landscapes through an array of perspectives.

GIS tools take data and transpose it onto maps, making complex information visual. With the imagery and data that NASA is providing, students will be able to examine virtually every corner of the globe, down to their state or hometown. By combining that data with ESRI's ArcView and ERDAS' ArcViewImage Analysis extension software, students will be able to factor information such as census statistics and environmental facts onto their maps.

"GIS is as much a tool and process as it is a mind-set, helping to develop three key, fundamental areas of education — scholarship, artisanship and citizenship," said George Dailey, K-12 education specialist at ESRI. "It helps our students become critical thinkers, it helps develop the skills students will need to enter the workforce, and it does this in a way that allows them to be active in and connected to where they live."

Alex Philp, assistant director of NASA's EOS Education Project at the University of Montana, helped spearhead the initiative and hopes it will make Montana a national model by showing other states that there are ways to overcome the barriers of cost and unfamiliarity that have kept GIS outof K-12 classrooms.

"We wanted people to say, "If Montana can do this, why can't we?' "Philp said. "We'd been trying to implement the software on a school-by-school basis but found that schools were having problems coming up with the funding."

So Philp negotiated a deal in which ESRI granted Montana a statewide license to use its ArcView GIS software at a reduced rate, and ERDAS agreed to provide for free its Image Analysis extension software to enhance the ArcView capabilities. NASA contributed $35,000 toward the initiative.

"The idea was, instead of having schools spending 1,000 bucks a pop,we'd go through the state and get a contract that covered them all," Philp said. "Now schools have that legal ability to install the software on their networks. And between the core ArcView and the ERDAS data extension software,we're putting $1,000 of software in every K-12 public school in the state."

With the ERDAS software package, students can combine maps, image data and geographic data so they can see how much of a forest was damaged in a fire, how far a watershed runs under a county or which forested are asare likely to be razed to accommodate population growth, according to John Allan, executive director of business development for ERDAS.

"By allowing you to extract the information from that imagery, the extension [software] really lets you explore relationships between places around the world, or between and within communities in Montana," Allan said.

To train Montana's teachers to use the software, EOS officials purchased space for each public school in the state at the ESRI "virtual campus," where teachers can take online courses, developed by experts in the softwareand satellite imagery fields, at their own pace.

EOS also provided scholarships for 20 teachers to attend a 10-week introductory course on ArcView at the University of Montana. These seminars, which normally cost $495 a person, were provided for "teachers who really indicated thatthey were willing to step up to the plate," Philp said.

"The trick is that you have to work with the teachers and get them excited and motivated so they come to see how this technology can be worthwhile," he said. "You only need one or two teachers per school as a vanguard, and they in turn get others excited, and people begin to notice."

Marlene Zentz, a seventh-grade teacher for Billings Public Schools, has used GIS in her classes for several years. Usually about once a month, she and her students combine maps of the local area with data relevant to a particular lesson plan.

By combining maps of a local mountain range with data about their summits and peaks, her students can compare them to the Continental Divide or predict how the changing climate and population will affect wilderness areas.

"They would not only solve problems that I presented them with, butwere coming up with their own scenarios and solving them, too," Zentz said." They learned the analytical power of taking a map and asking questions about it."

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