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GIS Class at UWFox

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UW-Fox Valley Offers Opportunity for Local Educators to Explore the Promise of GIS

There are occasions when a new technological tool appears that has the potential to change the course of education and training for students of all ages. Such a tool can change the way that individuals see things, think about problem-solving, and how they approach their work for the rest of their lives.

The Office of Continuing Education at the University of Wisconsin - Fox Valley is offering a marvelous opportunity for area educators to learn about one of the most important scientific developments in recent years. The Geographic Information System(GIS) can mean more to teachers, students, and business people than just "having a source for mapping."

"Integrating Geographic Information Systems Technology into Wisconsin Public Schools" is being offered July 31, August 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at five sites across the state, including the Menasha campus. Besides the six-day classroom sessions, teachers participating in the workshop are reconvening at the workshop site for three Saturday assessment and idea sharing sessions during October, November, and December 2000. The initial Saturday sessions are used as instructional and project development time, and the final sessions are used to evaluate GIS as learning tool.

According to Cathy Paynter, Director of Continuing Education, "This GIS training provides a great opportunity for teachers to conveniently acquire instruction on cutting-edge technology. The class is set up to promote interaction between the teachers who represent many school districts. It's a chance for them to develop curriculum in a collaborative and diverse environment. It's an opportunity that doesn't come along everyday."

A modest registration fee of $79.00 per participant covers all materials, refreshments, and free ArcView software.

Paynter points out that teachers taking the course can "apply for DPI clock hours or take the course for three undergraduate or graduate credits from the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point." More information on these options is available through the Office of Continuing Education.

The course, taught by James Brey, Ph.D. (Associate Professor of Geography and Geology) of the UW-Fox Valley faculty, is designed to "teach and challenge teachers" by helping them develop curriculum that brings their own students into the 21st century.

According to Brey, "GIS is a computer application tool that has simplified and improved many of the everyday things that we do. It helps us understand our world in ways not possible before. It makes mapping distributions of phenomenon easy, more accurate, and fast."

"If business people, resource managers, planners and others have gained so much benefit from this technology, it stands to reason that students should know it exists. They should have the chance to use it in their schoolwork. To get it to the students, we need to get it to the teachers. Teachers who understand this tool, and can teach others how to use it, allow their students to be more productive," Brey observed.

Brey shares his ideas for teaching the course. "The approach to this course is collegial. We all learn from each other in an exciting - but informal atmosphere. While the teachers taking the course may need to learn how to install and use the software [that comes with the course], they already have a wealth of knowledge of how it might be used to solve problems and increase learning. I expect to learn much myself from that rich background. I am excited about unleashing the creativity that I know will be released as soon as teachers see the GIS in action. I am eager to see how they plan to use it to increase students' interest and learning in their classrooms. I also want to hear their personal strategies as to how they might share this important tool with the colleagues at their schools. It's important to remember that the software that comes with the course - and that the teachers get to take away with them - is licensed for every machine in their respective schools."

Every teacher needs to be a technology teacher; every discipline needs to have technology in it. Technology is allowing people of all ages to see the world in a whole new way. The applications of new technology can help people in their everyday lives. Finding and buying a new house - looking for flood plains, fault lines, understanding demographic information on a much higher level are just a few applications of this new technology.

How difficult will it be for a teacher to "teach" the course's recommended curriculum after going through the course? Brey responds, explaining that "This is not a course designed to make GIS experts out of K12 teachers. We'll start by using some examples of how GIS is used in 'real life,' and show examples of how we can use it to teach. We'll also use some examples that can be done step-by-step…that can easily be replicated in our lab and again once the teachers go home. The hands-on instruction takes place in one of the best-equipped GIS labs in the entire state of Wisconsin. Every teacher is at a computer. We also provide information about how to keep learning more about GIS."

Brey continues: "The real classroom 'curriculum' for the teachers doesn't change. They use this tool to teach the things they have always considered important. But…this technology can give the classroom teacher the edge in making learning happen. It is so visual, that the students will take to it right away."

In order for students of all ages to be able to compete in the present and future global arena, students must understand relationships of people, places and environments in order to become well-informed decision-makers of tomorrow. Bringing students into the 21st century is a challenge to contemporary educators. New geography learning standards are being created by school districts. Geography has been identified through national surveys as one of the five core subjects deemed important.

The veteran college professor cites his own students' experience working with the program. "It has proven to be a real motivator and interest builder when I use it to teach geography and earth science to the freshman and sophomore students in my UWFox college classes. Its use also makes it a snap to get students up to speed on several of the new standards of learning that have been adopted on the state and national level."

And what does a teacher expect to come away with, after completing the course? "Usually courses of this kind provide the training but not the software tools, because the tools are so expensive. In other cases, the teachers or schools have managed to get the software but don't know how to use it. This course provides the software and the training on how to use," Brey explains.

"Teachers get a powerful suite of GIS software and data sets, donated by by ESRI, the world's leading creator of GIS software. The software is valued at over $450. This software can be loaded - legally - onto any computer in the teacher's school, or onto their school network. It can also legally be installed on the teacher's home computer. There are Mac and PC versions available," the UWFox professor enthusiastically relates.

"This course also provides specialized training in how to use GIS in a variety of classroom settings. We explore applications and datasets relevant to a variety of subject areas and teacher interests. After initial background training in getting the software up and running, teachers have the opportunity to create projects of their own choosing within which they can hone their skills in using GIS to instruct students," Brey summarizes.

Brey's personal background positions him as a well qualified person to facilitate the instruction for the course. He has been involved in teacher enhancement courses for the Geological Society of America, the Wisconsin Academy of Science Arts and Letters, and the American Meteorological Society. His AMS work has been especially focused on improving science literacy in the United States, by preparing teachers to use cutting edge technology to teach modern standards-based science.

Dr. Brey has also successfully developed and taught a web-based lab science course, and takes great pride in the "success of the many students and teachers who made their first 'GIS' discoveries" with him … and now are experts in their own right in that field.

Brey cites his own experience with GIS, going back to the then-new technology in 1990! He was one of the first to develop and publish a strategy for using GIS in specialized agriculture. He is also currently working on ways "GIS tools might make the mobile phone industry more productive and efficient." His GIS interests extend into transportation issues and disaster planning.

The quintessential teacher, Brey's displays his enthusiasm as he shares his thoughts on students learning about this new process. "The real excitement, though, is to see the students' eyes light up when the plot their first data set and it comes up as a map that has the answer to the question they needed answered."

Posted 7/13/2000