Geographic Information Systems (GIS), mapping and analysis software employed by the U.S. government, NASA, and other agencies, now is helping students locate and document hazards in their communities. Included: Tips on how to use GIS in the classroom.
Technology used for analyzing and mapping states, countries, and continents also can help youngsters clean up their communities and find safe routes to school.
Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software and handheld computers, eighth graders at Spain Elementary/Middle School in Detroit, Michigan, located, identified, and mapped hazards and dangerous conditions in their neighborhoods thanks to a project funded by Detroit's Central Subzone Community Policing Program.
The students participated in a program called Mapping Out A Safer Community, conducted by the Urban Safety Program of the former Wayne State University College of Urban, Labor and Metropolitan Affairs, Center for Urban Studies, in Detroit. College faculty members trained middle schoolers to use GIS software and handheld computers to map their neighborhoods, and to use the information to lobby for remedies. GIS integrates data and uses it to draw maps of specific areas and provide other analyses.
"This [kind of project] gives students an awareness of their community and their surroundings and how they can improve it and be involved," said Debra Blocker, the computer technology teacher at Spain.
Students worked in classrooms and in the field with staff members from Wayne State, who visited Spain students twice a week. Besides teaching students to use handheld computers and sophisticated software, the program offered lessons in civics, geography, and local government.
In the community, pupils used pocket PCs to map locations of abandoned property and cars and other community hazards and took digital pictures of blighted areas. A Global Positioning Receiver attached to the handheld computers showed students their locations, which helped when they didn't have an address for a property. "When we identify a property, we can assign it to an owner," said David Martin, research professor at the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, who worked with the students.
The students compiled their material into Power Point presentations for Detroit city council members, highlighting areas that had been neglected and needed improvement. They were able to show, for example, that the number of abandoned homes in one neighborhood had increased by more than 50 percent. The Wayne County prosecutors' office began targeting the area.
"The kids saw results; like blighted homes being boarded up and cars towed away," Martin said.
While Martin focused on the technology side, Roy Wilds, the program director for the Urban Safety Program, talked to students about civic literacy and civic responsibility. "I also looked for outcomes; how to take information and deliver it in presentations," Wilds told Education World. "We talked about the local government, how decisions are made, the mayor and city council, who they are and what they do and why it is important to be involved and supportive and vote."
In some cases, after one or two years, students saw positive trends in the areas they surveyed. "If our project can help stabilize neighborhoods, that would be very important," Martin added.
Equally important was building students' sense of social responsibility, which can mean creating a pool of active, community advocates.
"I enjoyed learning more about how young people think," said Wilds, explaining why he is involved with the program. "We don't always express to them the need to participate. The earlier we do that, the better chance we have of developing solid citizens."
Working in their own neighborhoods and seeing how their findings can lead to change are among the reasons Mapping Out A Safer Community was so popular with students, said Blocker, who, along with counselor Monicel Crossley, worked with the students. "They loved it; they loved the hands-on work," Blocker told Education World. "They got excited when they saw their streets on the Internet, and could identify different landmarks. It gave them a different way to address problems. We had full attendance on those days."
Spurred by a concern for student safety, the Detroit Public Schools have used GIS in the district since 1999. That fall, a number of female students were assaulted while walking to school, and school officials asked residents to set up neighborhood patrols to supervise students in the morning, according to Dr. Randall E. Raymond, geographic information specialist for the Detroit schools' office of student transportation. Raymond used the GIS system to divide the city into a number of patrol sectors.
"Each patrol sector was further subdivided into actual block area assignments, so every area of the city had individuals on patrol when students were walking to school," Raymond told Education World. "We used those sectors to work with the City of Detroit to provide a variety of analyses that described safe routes to school for the students."
That effort led to the district working with the United Way of Detroit on programs that involved students walking through the neighborhoods with teachers and volunteer leaders to assess the walking conditions from the students' viewpoint.
About 20,000 schools in the United States use GIS technology, Raymond said. GIS dates back to the 1960s, when it was used to computerize and store maps. Now it is used for everything from determining the best location for businesses to student geography lessons.
The software is changing the way geography is taught in schools -- and has infinite other educational applications. "Any interactivity using maps should be using GIS technology," Raymond said. "It can be used to teach chemistry, biology, and environmental science. GIS data also can help analyze where kids are and where schools should be. You can map community resources for particular schools and kids."
A former teacher, Raymond purchased a computer and GIS software 11 years ago, with $25,000 he received as a reward for excellence in teaching. He underwent GIS training, and now uses it to lay out the most efficient bus routes for the district, as well as other applications.
Michigan state officials were so convinced of GIS's value that they planned to offer training in using the software and its classroom applications to every educational institution in the state. The federal Office of Homeland Security uses GIS extensively, and has been offering incentives for school districts to purchase it, according to Raymond.
Districts like Detroit, meanwhile, continue to find ways to expand GIS uses. Wayne State assisted the Detroit Community Initiative, Inc. with an after school component and a summer session called "Future Leaders." One summer, high-school students joined middle-school students in the program to help inventory a two square-mile area, Martin said.
"I enjoyed working with the kids; I saw the impact on them," Martin said. "When kids are armed with technology and can put [the results] together in a Power Point presentation, it's pretty impressive, and they saw some immediate results."