Teachers Find Plenty of Uses For Software That Covers the Map

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Corporations and government agencies use powerful mapping software--called "geographic information systems"--to analyze markets, study natural resources and environmental problems, and manage far-flung operations.

The same technology is helping Detroit high school students find their way to good jobs.

Randall E. Raymond, a science teacher at Cass Technical High School in downtown Detroit, teaches his students how to use GIS software in a course he teaches on urban environmental science.

The software, called ArcView, is the personal computer version of a professional-grade program that runs on powerful workstations. ArcView allows users to encode digitized maps with just about any data that relate to a geographic area, such as U.S. Census information.

Mr. Raymond introduced the software at Cass in 1992 after he won a teaching award and "didn't have to ask anybody how to spend" the $25,000 prize.

In 1994, a group of his students demonstrated the software to the Ford Motor Co., which at the time didn't use the technology. Ford hired them to conduct a demographic analysis of the automobile markets in Brazil, China, and India.

To complete the project, Mr. Raymond said, he and his students had to learn to think like a car company. "Why would a company like Ford Motor Company want to think about India? School kids don't usually think about this kind of thing."

Now other teachers at Cass Technical and other Detroit high schools use the software in subject areas that include social studies, mathematics, and other sciences.

The 150 students in Mr. Raymond's urban-studies classes call on the mapping technology in studying a range of urban problems, such as pollution and cities' systems of criminal justice and emergency response.

Some of Mr. Raymond's students are helping community organizations use the technology. Ten students are helping Gleaners, a local food bank, make use of geographic information systems to plan distribution routes and to evaluate the agency's effectiveness.

And nine students are working with the Wayne County, Mich., planning department to create computerized maps of local "brownfields sites," urban real estate that is polluted but still suitable for industry. Embedded in the maps of each site are the land assessor's data, information about who owns the property, and directions on how to visit it.

In the process, the students earn some of the 200 volunteer hours each needs to graduate. Some qualify for dual enrollment in an advanced course in GIS technology that Mr. Raymond teaches on Saturdays at Wayne State University.

Seventeen graduates of his program since 1993 have gotten jobs that use GIS technology, he said. Entry-level jobs using the software pay $12 to $15 an hour part time, or $35,000 to $40,000 annually for full-time work, Mr. Raymond said.

Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., which produces ArcView, has more than a business interest in promoting the use of its technology in schools, said Charlie Fitzpatrick, the manager of the company's K-12 program.

The Redlands, Calif.-based company, one of the largest GIS makers, sells most of its software and data to corporations and government agencies but faces fierce competition to serve that expanding market.

It is a competitive advantage if young people entering the workforce are familiar with his company's product, Mr. Fitzpatrick said. That's one reason Environmental Systems Research has helped 2,000 schools acquire ArcView.

But the experience of Apple Computer Inc., which salted the schools with its technology but faltered competitively, shows that the impact of school use on a company's bottom line is limited.

More fundamentally, Mr. Fitzpatrick said, "one of our corporation's real driving forces is the desire to create a more spatially literate society."

The company sells a "school bundle" of its software that includes eight different data sets, including data on different nations, the Canadian provinces, and U.S. counties.

The software for loading data into maps has several modes of performance, tailored to a user's skill level, from simple to sophisticated.

Geography teachers generally have a harder time than science teachers becoming skilled in the mapping software, Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

"Geography teachers tend not to be so technically proficient as science teachers," he said. "Science teachers approach their subject more as a thing to be investigated [through the] scientific method. Social studies and geography teachers generally approach their discipline as body of information to be acquired.

"On the whole, they're less comfortable with the approach of 'let's explore this information.'"

The company has been working with the nonprofit Center for Image Processing in Education in Tucson, Ariz., to develop methods to train teachers, he said.
--ANDREW TROTTER [email protected]

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