Fresh Thinking: GIS in Environmental Education

by DR. MONICA RAMIREZ Assistant Professor Florida Atlantic University PATRICIA ALTHOUSE Graduate Student Florida Atlantic University Port St. Lucie, Fla. Responsible environmental behavior has been cited as the ultimate goal of environmental education. 1 Existing empirical studies indicate that this goal is not being met in schools across America. 2 Many have suggested that the roots of environmental problems stem, in large part, from the basic values upon which society has been built. 3 According to Hungerford, there is a responsibility for environmental education to produce human beings with what is called an "environmental ethic." 4 With these concerns in mind, Florida Atlantic University has launched a project with Jupiter Community High School. Known as the Palm Beach County Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Project, it demonstrates an innovative and exciting way to teach environmental and earth education in the high school classroom-integrating technology, focusing on interdisciplinary subject matter, and addressing environmental values. One project component is the GIS curriculum, a one-year course that provides not only a model for effective systemic reform but also an interesting format to promote solutions to critical environmental and earth issues on a state, national and global scale. For example, the GIS curriculum follows national trends expressed in the 1993 publication of Benchmarks for Science Literacy, which incorporates educational change. The GIS program also addresses the principle of global "Paradox" referring to "...the bigger the world economy, the more powerful its smallest players..."5 This relates directly to the educational and technological reform efforts in the GIS classroom, where teachers and students as the smallest players have a large impact on the global environmental education paradigm shift. The purpose of the paradox is to provoke "fresh thinking."5 The GIS curriculum has been modeled into a thought-provoking course that puts students and teachers on the cutting edge of environmental education and science reform. GIS Project Promotes "Fresh Thinking" Bruce Joffe summarizes that the purposes and methods for which GIS technology is used can have a critical impact on our society, and the accessibility to the technology reflects implied moral values.6 For example, GIS provided crucial to coordinating relief efforts after Hurricane Andrew destroyed large sections of southern Florida and left thousands of residents homeless... GIS was used to estimate damages via building and zoning systems and determine the location of likely flood zones.7 The closing of the Charleston South Carolina Naval Complex offers another case study in using GIS as a tool, this time in a six-month planning project that deals with reusing those facilities.8 Students exposed to such challenging issues see earth and environmental education in a new context. They identify a real problem, hypothesize, collect data, formulate a step-by step procedure, and come up with workable results. A synthesis of findings published by UNESCO-UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) concludes that educational programs based on real-life problems and a functional logic aimed at their solution have not yet been developed, in a general manner... .9 Few programs emphasize the role of the citizen in working, both individually and collectively, toward the solution of problems.10 GIS as Environmental Paradigm Tool A social transformation is occurring in the direction of a New Environmental Paradigm.11 Gigliotti's study of environmental attitude changes of 20 years notes that even though materialistic concerns still take precedence over environmental matters, there has been a distinct shift. "Environmental education seems to have succeeded largely in increasing concern about the environment and about pollution problems caused by industry, while the message of the individual's role in environmental problems is just beginning to be sounded."12 GIS students at Jupiter High School exemplify this paradigm shift. Since 1994, these students have been the protégés of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), analyzing local spatial data related to vital environmental issues in the Everglades Restoration Project. Students are also developing skills to understand the individual's commitment to global issues. A new study questions the stability of the remnants of Chernobyl nuclear reactor that exploded in April 1986. The United Nations and other international organizations are putting pressure on the Ukraine to shut down a sister reactor in the vicinity to avoid another accident. According to a report in the London Observer newspaper, "European officials...tried to suppress the study because of its controversial implications."13 An issue such as this one allows students to collect and analyze data using GIS technology. What students begin to realize is that although the study calls for shutting down the nuclear facility, there is another matter to be considered beyond the essential protection of earth: the projected clean-up of several billion dollars that no one is willing to pay. Case studies, such as Chernobyl, emphasize the social transition from a global issue to an individual's moral responsibility. Palm Beach County GIS Project The Palm Beach County GIS Project for grades 9-12 is the first of its kind in public education nationwide. Its comprehensive vision includes specialized curriculum and a post-secondary continuum. Components of the project are described below. Teacher Training Component: The SFWMD provided interested high school teachers (ten teachers from six high schools) GIS training. This included hands-on use of computers and software and culminated in the development of a two-semester GIS curriculum. Teachers also participated in field work on environmental conservation and water management. For example, teachers had the opportunity to step into the role of a modern cartographer and inventory the vegetative cover of a wetlands mosaic/pine flatwoods. Following the 60-hour initial training, selected teachers continued GIS studies at a national GIS conference with experts. Patric Edmondson, geographer at the SFWMD, agrees than the " GIS program is unique for teachers. They have the opportunity to teach students cutting-edge technology application."14 DD> The GIS Project Curriculum:The GIS curriculum allows for the analysis of spatially oriented data. Information that has a locational or spatial component is stored, so complex relationships between database information may be analyzed. Use of the technology draws on skills crucial to the development of higher-level thinking. The GIS curriculum provides important interdisciplinary links as it expands from science into social science and mathematics. The GIS document used in the curriculum consists of five major concepts: Status Report Earth Retrospective Patterns, Cycles and Flows Resources and Opportunities Challenges All five concepts are interwoven and stress not only factual knowledge, but also interpretation. The Chernobyl and Charleston Naval Base case studies are pertinent illustrations. The GIS course, which has been approved by the Florida State Department of Education as "Geoscience," is currently offered only by teacher recommendation to Honors students interested in the sciences, social sciences and mathematics. The goal of this unique program is aligned with the call by educators to make science and environmental education relevant for today's world of technological development, environmental degradation and societal confusion.15 Technology Requirements: Minimum hardware requirements for this curriculum are: a 486 DX2 66MHz CPU with at least 8MB RAM, 200MB of hard disk space and a Super VGA display. ArcView Version 1 software has been placed in the pubic domain, while an ArcView Version 2 Education Package is offered by ESRI, Inc. (Environmental Systems Research Institute). ArcView software allows desktop query and display of geographic files and attribute layers. A more ideal hardware configuration is a 486 DX4 100MHz CPU with 16MB of RAM and 500MB of hard disk space to increase computational speed and facilitate display mode. The Global Positioning Systems (GPS) Unit is suggested as a tool for optimal curriculum implementation. The GPS unit is used to collect on-site data that is easily exported to a GIS mapping package. Implementing the Curriculum: The GIS curriculum can be taught at different levels. A one-semester survey course introduces GIS concepts and enhances the earth science or environmental science curriculum. The two-semester course is a year-long study designed to culminate in an independent discovery project involving applications within the GIS program. This course requires an earth science prerequisite, computer literacy, advanced mathematics and geography background. Jupiter High School has introduced block scheduling. Instead of the traditional seven 50- minute period schedule, classes comprise 100-minute blocks (four periods per day) and meet on alternate days. Block scheduling has distinct advantages for the GIS students, allowing them to take an assignment beyond the classroom and into the field, collecting and exporting data all in a one-block period. By eliminating clerical duties in between classes, students also increase their time-on-task by one-fourth on a bi-weekly basis. According to Everett Bomgardner, assistant principal at a Palm Beach County high school, "The positive effects of block scheduling have been demonstrated through an eight-year study performed at Summit High School in Frisco, Colo., [which has] shown an increase in students' class loads, a positive effect on nationally normed tests and an increase in ACT/SAT test scores."16 The GIS effort within the high school system and SFWMD has reflected positively on the newly developed Master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction in Environmental Education offered here at Florida Atlantic University. Our master's program offers a menu of GIS and GIS-related courses that are mandatory, such as Computer Cartography and Analysis, and Remote Sensing of the Environment. Courses like these are the true fabric of education: teachers construct meaning, examine individual values, engage in environmental problem solving and explore processes to reach workable outcomes. And what about employment opportunities? According to a recent newspaper article, GIS practitioners are in demand. A mapping-sciences recruiter has seen GIS placement requests grow from 10% of its business in 1989 to 90% in 1994.17 GIS: A Means to an End GIS technology is the tool that empowers students to solve real-life problems. GIS fosters a transformation in students' self-esteem and value system, producing students with an environmental ethic. A realization that environmental problems are really just science-related social problems is required to create this ethic, and the mechanics of GIS provides that revelation. Coverages overlayed onto geographic files can be operated upon to visualize "what if" scenarios leading to the generation of workable solutions. Proposed research will determine the extent to which the "Geoscience" curriculum has initiated a change in student's belief system and related overt environmental behavior. Monica Ramirez, an assistant professor in teacher education at Florida Atlantic University, Treasure Coast Campus, was formerly secondary science supervisor for the Palm Beach County School District and developed several programs related to GIS. E-mail: Patricia Althouse, a secondary teacher with the Palm Beach County School District on sabbatical completing the master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction, Environmental Education referred to in this article, is assisting the implementation of the Geoscience curriculum at Jupiter High School. References: 1. Stapp, W., (1969), "The Concept of Environmental Education," Journal of Environmental Education, 1(3), pp. 31-36. 2. Volk, T., Hungerford, H. & Tomera, A., (1984), "A National Survey of Curriculum Needs as Perceived by Professional Environmental Educators," Journal of Environmental Education, 16(1), pp. 10-19. 3. Swan, J., (1971), "Environmental Education: One Approach to Resolving the Environmental Crisis," Environment and Behavior, 3(3), pp. 223-229. 4. Hungerford, H.R., Peyton, R.B. & Wilke, R.J., (1980), "Goals for Curriculum Development in Environmental Education," Journal of Environmental Education, 11(3), pp. 42-47. 5. Naisbitt, J., (1995), Global Paradox, New York, NY: Avon Books, p. 6 6. Joffe, B., (1995), "GIS and Values," GeoInfo Systems, 5(3), p. 13. 7. Baum, D., (1992), "GIS Proves Critical to Hurricane Andrew Relief Efforts," InfoWorld, 14(41), p. 68. 8. Sherman, M., (1995), "Planning for Peace," GeoInfo Systems, 5(3), p. 33. 9. Needs and Priorities in Environmental Education: An International Survey (UNESCO-ENVED 6). Paris, France: UNESCO-ENEP, 11. 10. Stapp, W., (1971), "Environmental Encounters," Outlines of Environmental Education, (C. Sc'enfeld, ed). Madison, WI: Denbar Educational Research Services. 11. Catton, W.R., Jr., & Dunlap, R.E., (1978), "Environmental Sociology: A New Paradigm," American Sociologist, 13, pp. 41-49. 12. Gigliotti, L., (1993), "Environmental Attitudes: 20 Years of Change?" Journal of Environmental Education, 25(1), pp. 15-26. 13. Newsday, "Ukraine Urged to Close Chernobyl," Palm Beach Post, March 31, 1995.


14. Edmonson, Patric, geographer, South Florida Water Management District; interviewed by author, January 10, 1994. 15. Ramsey, John M., (1993), "The Effects of Issue Investigation and Action Training on Eighth-Grade Students' Environmental Behavior," Journal of Environmental Education, 24(3), pp. 31-36. 16. Bomgardner, Everett, assistant principal, The School District of Palm Beach County; interview by author, March 7, 1995. 17. Working Woman Magazine, "Environmental Careers Boom," Palm Beach Post, March 12, 1995. Products mentioned: ArcView; Environmental System Research Institute (ESRI), Inc., Redlands, CA, (909) 793-2853 SFWMD is a governmental agency that has jurisdiction over South Florida's water resources. This agency balances the supply and demands on the water budget placed by such diverse interests such as agriculture, urban populations, and the Everglades ecosystem encompassing most of South Florida.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.

comments powered by Disqus

White Papers:

  • Make a Difference. No Compromise. PDF screen shot

    Printing solutions have become complicated. With new options and technology, such as MFP or CLOUD services, it is making short and long term printing decisions much more complicated. Read this whitepaper to learn about available printing solutions that offer low acquisition costs, low energy consumption and speedy print production. Read more...