Students create ‘biomaps’ using sophisticated GIS software

Students at Hopkinton High School in New Hampshire are taking a hands-on approach to learning about their local flora and fauna, with the help of very sophisticated mapping software.

Hopkinton geography and science students have been using high-tech geographic information system (GIS) software called ArcView to create complex, multi-dimensional maps of the environment in and around their hometown.

"ArcView seems to be the industry standard for mapping software. It’s what the state of New Hampshire uses," said geography teacher Bob Woolner.

Woolner and biology teacher Scott Semmens are among the first educators to teach GIS software programs and their applications at the high school level. Typically, use of the technology is reserved for college-level courses.

Students began the project by collecting data in the field and observing patterns in their environment. They collected data on water quality at a local creek that leads into a large watershed, then entered their findings into the GIS system.

Currently, students are scouring the natural environment in Hopkinton looking for evidence of wildlife. They record information on animal droppings, dens, teeth marks, and antler marks in order to determine which areas are significant animal corridors. The students dutifully record all of the information gathered in the field, and this information is entered into ArcView, where it is organized and mapped.

Each category of information collected produces its own map, called a GIS layer. Each layer can then be transposed over the others to produce a many-layered map, which offers a more complete picture of a certain geographic area than a traditional map.

Students seem to enjoy using technology to map the data they have gathered themselves. "It’s a lot of fun. It’s nice to be able to go into the field and study tracking. And everyone is starting to learn ArcView," commented Hopkinton freshman Andrew Secor. "It’s pretty easy to pick up," he added.

Responses like this were just what the teaching team was hoping for when they conceptualized the idea last summer, after Woolner received a free site license for attending a conference hosted by the Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI).

ESRI agreed to fund the effort at Hopkinton, though Woolner noted that the high school has kept hardware costs to a minimum by using machines assembled by seventh-graders. He estimates that the ArcView software can cost up to $17,000, but the basic program starts around $1,200.

Semmens admits there was an initial degree of frustration for some students who did not have previous computer experience, but he added, "Now, students can see the connection between what they see in the field and what they plot on the computer. So far, reactions are really positive."

Though programs like the GIS class normally are taught only at the college and graduate level, Semmens believes that many science and social studies high school standards can be fulfilled by teaching ArcView.

"We are fulfilling both the science and technology standard and also integrating different scientific fields into the curriculum, including geography, ecology, geology, biology, and physiology," he said.

Woolner and Semmens have big plans for teaching with ArcView as the school year progresses. "In the spring, we’ll be examining vernal pools and using a higher version of GIS to create a polygon, or a realistically shaped pond on which to map data," Semmens said. "We also hope to use satellite images and field checks to establish forest composition."

Students using ArcView today are setting the groundwork for a program that both teachers hope will extend years into the future. Semmens also thinks the implications of such a program could have a positive effect on the community as a whole.

"The more information we gather, the more information town planners can have for decision-making," he said. "As the population continues to increase, more and more resources are becoming overwhelmed. Parts of the state are really growing, and those parts need to be carefully monitored."

Programs like the ArcView class help students understand more about their community and the natural environment, Semmens concluded: "Students are often very sensitive to community issues like these, and this class is a great way to involve them."

Hopkinton High School


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