Free statewide mapping software in schools offers hands-on experience

Thursday, October 4, 2012 | 5:29 p.m. CDT; updated 5:52 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 4, 2012

COLUMBIA — A new statewide license for mapping software will bring geographic information systems to K-12 classrooms for free.

The mapping software is an analytical tool designed to help students make deeper connections between school subjects and the world outside the classroom.

The license opens up opportunities to be more hands-on and gives students experience in the growing field of mapping, said Shannon White, a geospatial extension specialist and coordinator of the Missouri Geographic Alliance at MU.

White started the initiative for the license four years ago after being approached by the K-12 representative for what is now called Esri, which makes the software that will be in the schools.

Through the collaboration among White, Esri and several other partners, the license is available to schools for free.

The partner organizations negotiated an agreement that educators and professionals will match the cost of the program through internal support and use of the software. Support ranges from donating supplies to attending GIS conferences. 

"This is a phenomenal opportunity, especially in these economic times, for schools with declining budgets and limited fiscal resources,” White said.

The license, administered through the Missouri Geographic Alliance, will cover software, updates and both instructional and administrative uses in the K-12 setting. It will be available to all types of schools, including public, private and charter schools. It will also include certified youth programs and students who are home-schooled. 

Laura Estabrooks, an instructor of geospatial technology and geospatial analysis courses at the Columbia Area Career Center, uses the system in her classroom.

"We show (the students) that they can apply GIS to their own interests — it’s telling them you can do these things," she said.

Estabrooks, the first person to have access to the new license, said she thinks bringing the system to more classrooms in Columbia will "bring us to the 21st century."

Geographic information systems in education is constantly expanding, but there is still little understanding of how it can be used effectively in classrooms for more than just geographical topics, White said.

She hopes that a statewide license will help make teachers more aware of the technology that is available to them.

"It’s just one piece of technology in the toolbox that students have that allows them to use analytical thinking through investigation," she said.

As an example, White said mapping software gives students the ability to map out Huckleberry Finn’s adventures with more detail while they learn about Mark Twain in language arts classes. 

"It’s such a powerful tool that allows teachers to cross the boundaries of the curriculum," said Barbaree Duke, a former English teacher who used GIS in her classrooms and writes example curriculums for incorporating GIS.

On Saturday, Duke taught two sessions about the software at the Missouri Geographic Alliance's one-day conference at MU. Her presentation targeted teachers who wanted to know more about effectively working these systems into the classroom.

GIS professionals back the initiative and want to help teachers understand how to use the technology in their classrooms effectively, White said.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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