GIS, GPS tools guide students through surroundings

By Susan Riddell

Ever wondered why a certain plant is prominent in one part of your county but not another?

Maybe you’re curious as to how urbanization and growth affect creeks and other bodies of water.

Students are answering those types of questions thanks to Geographical Information System (GIS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices.

According to Haridas Chandran, a science teacher at Belfry High School (Pike County), GPS devices, originally designed as military location tools, have found their way into the classroom as educational tools.

The University of Kentucky’s Tracy Farmer Institute for the Environment is working with nearly 20 schools throughout the state developing GIS and remote sensing/GPS curricular content with non-geography teachers.

Belfry High was a recipient of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) grant from the institute that brought the GPS and GIS resources to the schools.

Chandran said his students’ goal in using the tools was to study the chemical constituents of herbs grown in the nearby Appalachian Mountains and compare them with the medicines used for treating cancer and other related diseases prevalent in the region.

“Since the NSF-ITEST grant is more focused on the information technology component, we used the GPS system provided by the grant to locate the herbs in the mountains near our school,” Chandran said. “We focused on two mountains surrounding Pigeon Roost Road and Thornsbury Hollow in Canada, Ky., to collect the soil with the herbs ginseng, yellow root, golden seed, sassafras and others that are of medicinal value.

“(The) GPS system was used to locate the places where these herbs were grown so that one can use this location and revisit later on for further investigation. The students used ArcGIS program (one of the GIS software programs) to insert these points on the Pike County map. This program has features where one can exactly find the distance from the school to the points where the herbs are grown. It can also find the elevation of the mountains.”

Chandran said students collected soils and herbs to study chemical compositions and performed an analysis.

“They observed that some soils were rich in potassium and nitrogen and were more acidic than others,” Chandran said.

Teachers also use GIS technology to look at settlement patterns, the human relationship to surroundings in an area and how technology has influenced these environments.

“This has helped students to see that the big world is not so big after all through the technology of map building and visual representation,” said Shelly Chesnut, a 6th-grade science teacher at Grant County Middle School, which also received a NSF-ITEST grant. “In the general 6th-grade science classroom, the use of this technology has improved the students’ use of data and critical thinking skills by allowing students to see cause-and-effect relationships between past environmental decisions and current results.”

Rebecca Saager, a science teacher at Scott County Middle School, has used GIS resources to have her students study the changes in an ever-growing Scott County population. Her “big picture project” has involved researching how the urbanization of the county has affected the Elkhorn Creek watershed drainage basin.

“As part of this program, I have been using an Environmental Systems Research Institute program called Our World GIS Education,” Saager said. “This program introduced the students to the ArcGIS computer program and the basis of how the features are used. I then have a small group of students that gathers GPS points to download into the computer and design maps specific to the Elkhorn Creek basin.

“I am always reminded how much the students become engaged in the program,” Saager added. “Middle school students are more attentive to any learning when there are hands-on activities like these.”

Chesnut’s students at Grant County Middle chose to investigate the problem of invasive species. To complete this project, Chesnut’s students were given various materials including water testing and fishing equipment, GPS units and ArcGIS software.

“Students identified various species of plants and animals including native and invasive species,” Chesnut said. “They used the GPS units to mark the location of each species and recorded information such as size and area covered.

“Back in the classroom, the information gathered in the field was analyzed and transferred to the ArcGIS program to make a visual representation of the data found. This representation was then used to inform the general community of the threat that invasive species pose to our local community.”

Chesnut said the students just assumed every plant or animal in Grant County was supposed to be there and served a purpose that kept the environment in balance before tackling this project.

“After doing this project and exploring the data from other locations around the state, they have developed a protectionist attitude toward our environment,” Chesnut said. “They petitioned the Grant County Board of Education to eliminate the winter creeper used for erosion control and replace it with burning strawberry, which serves the same purpose but is native to Kentucky.”

While teachers agree the GPS and GIS tools have been a great way to enhance hands-on learning, they warn teachers to consider cost and available time, too, should they be interested in obtaining the resources.

“There is some time needed for self-learning and being connected with other help for resources,” Saager said. “It can be very difficult at times without a strong technological base in the school and the ability to connect with other teachers using similar technology.”

“I would encourage other teachers to use GPS units in their classrooms for data gathering and research to increase student understanding and enthusiasm,” Chesnut added. “Most teachers can find a local resource to purchase or borrow basic GPS units from (organizations), like the conservation district or local 4-H council, but other programs, such as the ArcGIS, come with a higher cost. It’s something to keep in mind before you begin.”

Haridas Chandran,, (606) 237-3900
Shelly Chesnut,, (859) 824-7161
Rebecca Saager,, (859) 863-7202