Students Explore Community Issues Using Geographic Info. System

In 1991, Randall E. Raymond, a science teacher at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, Mich., conceived a project that would allow his students to gain some real-world experience by engaging in research activities outside of the classroom.

That year, he applied to and received a TAPESTRY grant from the National Science Teachers Association and Toyota to pay for his efforts. During the summer, a small group of chemistry and biology students worked at a nature center on a nearby island.

Raymondís project also required that these students serve as role models for "young scientists" at local elementary schools. When the fall semester arrived, group members began to visit fourth and fifth graders at seven area schools.

Twice a month, the high school students would make the trip and become ìteachersî of various environmental topics. All those involved commended the sessions, and Raymond started to think of ways to expand the project to a larger audience.

An Unexpected Turn

When the two-year TAPESTRY grant expired, the project took an unexpected turn. In searching for new funding opportunities, Raymond came into contact with a company that produces geographic information systems -- computerized tools for mapping and analyzing things that exist and events that happen on Earth.

Recognizing that his students might benefit from this technology, the teacher purchased a copy of ARC/INFO, a geographic information system (GIS) from Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), of Redlands, Calif.

ARC/INFO stores information about the world as a collection of thematic layers that can be linked together by geography. The GIS concept was not totally foreign to Raymond -- he once worked as a mapmaker for the National Park Service.

After attending a workshop at ESRI, Raymond trained his class to use ARC/INFO on a desktop 486 PC. As their first assignment, students completed a survey of abandoned buildings in downtown Detroit, then presented their findings to the association that represents city businesses.

Clicking on building shapes within the digital map brought up tax records, renovation histories and other pertinent information. According to Raymond, when word spread about the studentsí presentation, ìthere was a lot of interest from many different agencies.î

A Powerful Proposal

Another group of students later collaborated with city officials to create a printed proposal for President Clintonís Empowerment Zone initiative. Based in large part on the proposalís detailed geographic models, Detroit became one of six cities that qualified for $100 million in federal funds.

Although not everyone will have the opportunity to submit maps to the President, Raymond says that kids at all grade levels can make an impact in their community using a GIS. For example, students could engage in ìbackyard scienceî by identifying safe, clean places in their neighborhood, then loading this data into the computer.

Raymond notes that GIS technology has advanced significantly in the past few years. ìThe software has become extremely powerfulÖ and moved into the age of multimedia.î Thus, with a little training, students can create 3D ìfly-throughsî of communities.

Administrators at Cass Technical High School have paid close attention to Raymondís efforts to find out how a GIS might facilitate internal operations. Literally hundreds of organizations have already discovered the advantages of implementing a GIS to manage complex issues. Analytical tools help answer questions such as ìHow many structures lie within 100m of this water main?" or "What's the best route for an emergency vehicle to take across campus?"

Raymond predicts that geographic information systems will gain even more followers within the public and private sectors. He notes that many students whoíve completed his courses have later found jobs based on their GIS skills.

"Employment opportunities will continue to exist in the future," Raymond says. "It will become essential for high schools to incorporate [GIS] into their curriculum."

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.