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Posted 11/20/2012

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By Jo Anita Miley
U.S. Army Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville

Students from the Ed White Middle School saw up close what it is like to be part of a GIS team Nov.14 during GIS Day at the school led by employees from the Corps of Engineers Huntsville Center.

The goal was to give sixth-grade students a basic geography lesson using Geographic Information System technology.

Huntsville Center Engineering Directorate employees Michele Maxson, Molly Richardson, Beverly Richey and Kacey Tyra Directorate spoke about everything from their daily use of GIS to how the organization utilizes this technology on project sites during natural disasters around the globe.

GIS Day is part of an annual education initiative that shows how GIS works. Users open their doors to schools, businesses and the general public to showcase real-world applications of GIS. GIS Day is held the third Wednesday in November during National Geography Awareness Week, a geographic literacy initiative sponsored by the National Geographic Society.

The day's activities at the school included online resources, maps and discussions related to geography.

Richey, a geographer and GIS specialist at Huntsville Center, led two 90-minute discussions she said were intended to give students an introduction to geography that focused on spatial perspective and how to use maps as stories.

"When you write a story, the author (which is you) needs information. For example, your main character in the story needs a name, or an age or a certain color hair," Richey said. "Well, it's the same with maps. Maps need information -- this is what makes GIS. 'G' is a map front end or the 'picture' and the 'I-S' is the information, which is data, whether it is a road name or name of a neighborhood."

Christine Hunt, a sixth-grade teacher at Ed White Middle, attended the GIS event because she wanted to show her students the relevance of the subject matter.

"I think having a geography lesson using GIS technology is important because the students have been allowed to look at maps from textbooks, but today they are allowed to look at maps and research using technology," Hunt said. "The overall goal of the lesson was to help students integrate this lesson using a digital curriculum."

Students also had a chance to ask questions during a fast-paced mapping exercise challenge as part of the workshop. The students were divided into teams and asked to construct their own "spatial map" by finding a library, post office, hospital, movie theater and mall. Afterward they loaded this information onto an online map.

The students said they enjoyed the day's activities.

"Kayla Black, who took part in the first session, said participating in the day's workshop has changed the way she looks at geography.

"The GIS people showed me how we learn different things every day that help us to make our own 'mind maps,'" Black said. "I didn't know we actually store these maps in our brain and use them to get around later. I want to learn more about how GIS works."

The school administrators said they were pleased with the career awareness part in the workshop.

Assistant principal Hovet Dixon said middle school age is where students either start getting involved in the mathematics and the science, or they get discouraged with it.

"The middle school age is that decision point when students decide what courses they're actually going to take in high school," Dixon said. "We want our students to know about unique STEM careers like geographers, geophysicists and GIS professionals. We include some of this into their school curriculum. However, it's always a plus for us when we can bring in outside resources to help reinforce this."

Richey said the Huntsville Center employees are more than happy to share their experiences working with GIS, to encourage the students to follow in their footsteps as GIS professionals.

"I'm excited to join in on the worldwide celebration today saluting geospatial technology and its power to better our lives," Richey said. "GIS is for everyone."

GIS huntsville center middle school National Georgraphy Awareness Week STEM technology