2011-02-10 / Youth


From colored pencils to handheld GPS

Studying geography has really changed.

Back when I was in middle school (early 1960s), geography entailed a lot of colored pencils, outline maps and rote memorization of products and people in various parts of the world. When we finished a unit, we were treated to an exciting travel film usually titled something like “Our Friends to the South,” or some boring old 1950s travelogue. I spent hours coloring France green, trying to figure out exactly where the Carpathian Mountains were located and praying the test didn’t ask us to list the main export products of Bolivia.

My teachers had never traveled out of the states of Illinois and Missouri.

Times have really changed. Last year we introduced a new class in the high school. Advanced Placement Human Geography is a fast-paced, in-depth study of the effects of people on the earth. AP Human Geography allows students to investigate human population issues, border disputes and world conflicts. Students explore economic theories and models as well as the world’s religions and the origins and diffusion of languages. They also study urban development, city planning and industrialization.

We still use maps, but our maps are on the computer and are interactive. We still use a textbook to cover the broad areas of study, but we also use the computer several days a week. Many of our lessons require development and use of online databases, using overlay maps and creating graphs and charts. We have studied, mapped and charted a wide range of topics ranging from tracking the AIDS epidemic to the population growth in India and world-wide migration problems.

This year, we have added a new section of study by introducing our students to the field of Geospatial Information Systems. Working with Dr. Ken Dunton from the Marine Science Institute and the UT GK-12 program, we have been fortunate in having the services of Joe Stachelek, a marine biology graduate student. Every Thursday, Joe has the class working on a project that involves not only geography but is related to an issue of local interest.

GIS uses computers and software to take numbers and information on spreadsheets and put them on a map. Everyone from emergency services to the electric company has come to rely on GIS data. GIS can help us code accident sites, code them by day of the week and even determine the most critical time of day. Our students have studied the historic track of hurricanes and their estimated damages.

One of our first projects was to plot the primary plant type and elevations on an area of salt marsh adjacent to our airport. Data was entered into handheld GPS units and then downloaded to our classroom computers. Student groups then created maps. All this was part of our geographic unit on human impact. None of this would have been possible without the assistance of Dr. Doughty in allowing us to create the class and the Port Aransas Education Foundation for providing a grant to purchase the ArcView software and portable GPS units.

Peter Barello teaches social studies at Port Aransas High School.

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