The New Cartographers

March 01, 1991 4 min read

Georgi Thompson, who teaches at Wiscasset Primary School and helped organize the project, explains: “This lets kids help their towns in a way the towns cannot help themselves. Right now, the townspeople are unable to say how many acres of a given habitat are left and whether a developer should be given a green light to build in a certain place.’'

The picture, or image as it is more accurately called, that the students use is an almost-photographic-quality, eagle-eye view of a 37-mile stretch of the Maine coastline in and around their towns. It was taken by France’s SPOT satellite and passed on to the schools by the Island Institute, a conservation group based in nearby Rockland, Maine. The institute gave the schools the image on computer disk drives and donated the special software needed to access it. In addition, the project received critical technical support from an Apple Computer Crossroads Education Grant, which provided Macintosh IIci computers, modems, and laser printers, as well as HyperCard, MacWrite, MacPaint, MacDraw, Microsoft Works, and other software programs. Apple also connected the computers to AppleLink, a worldwide telecommunications network. A local organization, the Maine Aspirations Foundation, gave GAIA a $10,000 grant.

Using the hardware and software, students can call up on computer screens the satellite image and zero in on their individual community. The technology also lets them break down the image into its smallest component, called a pixel, which represents a 20-meter-by-20-meter square of land. By doing a computer analysis of the light reflected by the landscape in each pixel, the students get clues as to what physical features-- sand, wetlands, forest, or meadows, for example--exist in the region.

From this analysis, each student uses the computer to make a preliminary map of his or her town. Since the satellite image cannot reveal every detail, the student then goes out into the field to fine-tune the map. Students integrate their individual maps into a single school map, which is the one they will present to their town planners.

The satellite images and computer mapping are the key components of GAIA, but the program works a little differently at each participating school. In Wiscasset Primary and Middle Schools, for example, Thompson works with gifted and talented students, one eightstudent team per grade. Team members are let out of their regular class once a week to work on GAIA. Thompson uses the project to teach the students about Maine’s history and changing economy, as well as about science.

Bob Walter, who teaches at Boothbay Region High School, has integrated the project into his two science classes for non-college-bound students. The classes work on the project almost every day, and Walter tries to integrate it into as much of the curriculum as he can. For example, he teaches about centrifugal force by discussing how the SPOT satellite stays in orbit around the Earth. He’s especially pleased that these particular students are participating in GAIA. “It’s been my opinion throughout my career,’' he says, “that it’s the 50 percent of kids who are not college bound who are not serviced by our school system. If this were a business, wouldn’t we be looking at the needs of 50 percent of our clientele?’'

The idea for the GAIA project came from Janet Campbell, a scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, an oceanographic research organization in West Boothbay Harbor. She had been using satellite imagery in her research and was looking for a way to get it into the schools. She had heard about the Island Institute’s satellite image of the Maine coast and the computer mapping program, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1989, when a friend at the institute told her about the Crossroads grants, that everything clicked in Campbell’s mind.

She asked the superintendents of the Boothbay Harbor and Wiscasset school districts and a few teachers she knew, including Thompson and Walter, to attend a meeting during Christmas break to discuss her idea and the possibility of applying for a Crossroads grant. Some 20 people showed up for the meeting; all of them were enthusiastic.

Thompson and Campbell prepared a grant application drawing on ideas expressed by people at the meeting. Last May, Apple notified them that their proposal was one of 20 selected out of 1,300 submitted.

Since then, GAIA has been going strong and continues to grow; more grades will be added by the end of the year. And Thompson says that 15 schools in other parts of Maine have contacted her, hoping to get in on the project.

Meanwhile, the teachers currently participating are developing instructional materials that other educators can use in the future. And Apple says it will donate up to 13 more top-of-theline computers and other useful equipment next fall. The company also wants to help the participating teachers publish papers and speak at conferences so that other schools and teachers can learn about the project. “We want to get the word out about what these teachers are doing,’' says Andrea Gooden, Apple’s program officer for education grants.

All those involved believe the project’s mix of technology and environmentalism can have an impact far beyond the classroom. “We’re allowing these kids to control their tomorrows by using the finest technology available today,’' Thompson says. “Growth is going to happen. This is a way to intelligently control it.’'---Lisa Wolcott

For more information about Apple Crossroads grants, contact: Apple Computers Inc., Community Affairs Department, Education Grants Programs, 20525 Mariani Ave., Mail Stop 38J, Cupertino, CA 95014; (408) 9742947.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as The New Cartographers