Geographic software helps teach critical skills

EAST also gives students technical training, and gives teachers and school administrators pedagogical training.
EAST also gives students technical training, and gives teachers and school administrators pedagogical training.

Thanks to a new statewide license, all schools in Arkansas will have access to geographic information system (GIS) technology–software the Arkansas Department of Education (DOE) hopes will continue to give students 21st-century skills and community service opportunities.

With the new statewide license, all 266 school districts in Arkansas will be able to use the GIS software from software maker ESRI.

“This is an important step in providing educational opportunities for our students to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” said Jim Boardman, assistant commissioner for research and technology at the Arkansas DOE. “Learning GIS gives students important skills that can be applied in a wide range of occupations.”

For the past several years, high school students in Arkansas have had the chance to use GIS technology through the EAST Initiative, an independent, secondary-school program that encourages the use of advanced technologies to develop solutions for community-related service projects.

For example, a recent EAST student summer project at the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies (CAST) concentrated on creating a detailed three-dimensional model of critical portions of the city of Fayetteville, Ark. The makers of Google Earth and SketchUp were so impressed by the project’s results that they have now featured the work as a “Google Pick” in the Google 3-D Warehouse. Items in the 3-D Warehouse can be downloaded for use in Google SketchUp or viewed in Google Earth.

Also, in 2007, two students from Beebe Middle School who had just completed sixth grade were invited to speak at the ESRI User Conference in front of 12,000 GIS professionals about their project.

“They were producing a map book for the emergency helicopter pilots who might need to fly into one of the towns in their county in the event of a disaster, such as a tornado,” explained Charlie Fitzpatrick, ESRI’s K-12 education manager.

“They were busy generating a set of standardized layouts of each town, with critical info so the pilot could interpret it and fly to a designated spot in each town. This was important because a tornado had gone through one of the towns recently and, with no street signs surviving, it was hard to give guidance to a chopper that needed to fly in.”

At the 2009 EAST conference, students from various schools participated in a competition using ESRI software. The winning entry was a bus routing project done by a senior at Drew Central High School. Second and third place went to a team of three sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at Harrisburg Middle School, who (while working in successive class periods) looked at where to place a new tornado siren in their town and presented their findings to the town council; their other entry explored evacuation routes for residents living in several counties in the Mississippi Delta.

“What’s exciting to me about what these students are doing is that they are real projects, requiring basic but solid skills with some advanced technology, [as well as] good critical thinking and problem solving, the ability to cope with an ill-structured problem, [and both] collaboration and independent work,” said Fitzpatrick. “These are solid skills for STEM and beyond.”

“Through our longtime support of GIS projects in Arkansas high schools, we have developed a close relationship with the Arkansas DOE,” said Matt Dozier, president of the EAST Initiative. “We will be working with the department to help facilitate its implementation of the technology in schools across the state.”

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