Students in Montana soon will have free access to the same space-based tools professional foresters, engineers, and mapmakers use to explore and study the world, thanks to a geography initiative called GIS-4-Montana.

All public K-12 schools in the state will get geographic information system (GIS) software and National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) content at no cost. The initiative is the product of an exclusive agreement between the state, GIS software providers, and NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS) Education Project of the University of Montana.

The goal of the initiative is “to help teachers learn to use equipment that would help them look at satellite imagery and have it incorporated into lesson plans,” said Alex Philp, assistant director of the EOS Education Project.

Two GIS software makers played a crucial role in making the initiative possible, Philp said.

Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI) granted a reduced-rate statewide license for its ArcView GIS software, and ERDAS Inc. offered free use of its Image Analysis extension software to enhance the capabilities of ArcView.

The University of Montana will coordinate training and dissemination of the project, while NASA is providing some funding and content.

GIS-4-Montana is expected to be deployed in some 150 to 200 schools this year, but the state’s 800 public schools are eligible.

“If a school wanted to buy an ArcView site license, it would cost them $500,” said Philp. With this agreement, schools get the software and packaged satellite imagery and data at no cost.

NASA is providing hundreds of scenes taken with its satellites, including comprehensive coverage of Montana. The images, which are only a year-and-a-half old, will let students explore every continent, country, state, and even their hometown.

“We have sample imagery that has a resolution of one meter off the ground taken from 400 miles away in space,” Philp said. “It’s incredibly powerful.”

ArcView is robust and powerful enough to let students and teachers add data—such as the most recent census statistics—to the images. “There are other programs out there that don’t allow people to do much with the data but look at it,” Philp said.

Teachers can use these tools to help students understand Montana’s history and geography. Students could use the software to map sources of pollution on a river, for example.

Jackie McCann, technology educator at Florence-Carlton School, a K-12 school in Florence, Mont., uses ArcView to teach Montana history, geography, and fire prevention. The software gives “new life” and “cutting-edge excitement” to old geography lessons, she said.

Students “like the power they have to change their view with just a few simple clicks. It sparks excitement and motivates students to do more and go further with their maps,” McCann said. “I am just as excited as the kids when we are working on projects.”

GIS software is useful for conducting query-based investigations in the classroom. It helps users both visualize and analyze spatial worlds, because it combines images with a database of information “You are only limited by your imagination as a teacher as to how to apply this,” Philp said.

McCann agrees: “The possibilities are limited only by my knowledge of the program. That pushes me to continue to learn more.”

To get teachers started, ESRI’s web site has a database of lesson plans, called ArcLessons.

“We built [the database] as a leave-and-retrieve site for teachers,” said George Dailey, K-12 education specialist at ESRI. “We, as a company, by no stretch of the imagination have all of the ideas of what’s possible with GIS, so it’s very important for teachers to be able to add their own.”

Teachers can learn how to use these GIS tools by taking ESRI’s self-guided, self-paced online tutorial, a limited number of which have been pre-paid by EOS officials, Philp said. The course also qualifies for university credit, he said.

“We bought training packages for 200 schools. Realistically we didn’t think we could work with more schools than that [this year],” Philp said.

The ArcView software does have a steep learning curve, but McCann recommends that teachers learn the software in small chunks using the online tutorial.

“First, learn how to work the buttons, then use prepared projects to manipulate information. Don’t try to make your own map until you have the first two steps down,” McCann said. “It is a large and complex program. I learned a bit here and there for a while but did not really start to be able to use ArcView until I went through an online course.”

Links:

GIS-4-Montana Education Initiative
http://www.eoscenter.com/gis4mt/index.cfm

NASA’s Earth Observing System Education Project of the University of Montana
http://www.eoscenter.com

Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.
http://www.esri.com

ESRI’s Schools and Libraries Program
http://www.esri.com/industries/k-12/index.html

ERDAS Inc.
http://www.erdas.com/home.asp

Florence-Carlton School
http://www.florence.k12.mt.us