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National Center for Rural STEM Outreach - Update on Grant Activities and Summer Workshop

By Bob Kolvoord, Project Director
Posted 9/18/06

Photo: STEMThe primary activity of the National Center for Rural STEM Outreach for the first year of the grant from the U .S . Department of Education (and facilitated by Congressman Goodlatte's office) was a summer workshop for rural middle school teachers . Twenty-six educators from across Virginia and across the U .S . came to the James Madison University campus from 17-28 July for a two-week workshop on the use of geospatial technologies in the classroom .

We focused on geospatial technologies (geographic information systems [GIS], global positioning systems [GPS, and remote sensing) because of their growing importance in both the national economy (one of the top three job growth areas according to the U .S . Department of Labor) and in developing spatial thinking skills in K-12 students ("Learning to Think Spatially – recent report from the National Academy of Sciences) .

Photo: Stem

The workshop was very successful . We had an exceptionally strong group of educators who were willing to work hard and bring their professional expertise to learning about the new technologies and developing new curricula to help integrate the geospatial tools in the classroom .

The workshop had two primary components, a hands-on seminar on geospatial technologies, and a curriculum development team that worked out a menu of new applications for geospatial technologies in middle school content areas . Twenty-one teachers participated in the hands-on seminar . They hailed from 11 different states (including Virginia) and spanned the different academic disciplines . Five former and current teachers made up the curriculum development team (four from Virginia and one from Pennsylvania) .

Photo: STEMThe hands-on seminar consisted of instruction in the use of GIS software (ArcGIS), GPS units (each teacher left the workshop with a GPS units to take back to his/her classroom), daily discussions about the fit of these tools in the curriculum, data gathering activities and a field trip to Shenandoah National Park (SNP) to test out some of their newfound skills in the field . Dr . Sally Hurlbert, an educational specialist at SNP worked with us as we tested a new activity that combines field study in the Park with GPS and GIS . The combination of GIS and field study is a particularly powerful way to teach about the uses of GIS .

The curriculum development team worked independently of the other teachers and came up with nearly two dozen activity ideas addressing a variety of content areas . They interacted regularly with the other teachers and used that feedback to shape their work . These activity ideas will be developed over the next school year (see below) and will be made available to both project teachers and others via the Internet .

Photo: STEMThere will be a strong school-year follow-up component to the workshop . Each teacher will receive a school-wide site license for the ArcGIS software . In fact, ESRI has agreed to donate the software to the project and we'll use the money that would've paid for the software to arrange a Summer 2007 follow-up workshop for the participating teachers . We'll also visit each teacher to evaluate his/her use of the tool and to provide technical (and moral) support . Often there are technical challenges that are out of an individual teacher's control that can severely limit the adoption of innovative technology . Lastly, the grant provides for labor to finish the curriculum development process started this summer and to provide electronic and phone support for teachers .

Photo: STEM

The teachers themselves are the best window into the summer workshop . Here are some quotes from the end of workshop evaluation that sum up the experience in their own words .

"I can't believe how much we learned in 2 weeks . I came not knowing what GIS stood for or what it was and never held a GPS receiver . Now I feel quite comfortable with both ."

"My greatest accomplishment was the lesson plan . I started from ZERO knowledge and grew so much ."

"I came away with a better understanding of how to use a GPS … and what GIS is and [its] applications used in the world ."

Photo: STEM

"Most importantly was seeing many ways I can use this [technology] to engage students in my classroom ."

One of the teachers sent me a letter at the end of the workshop and I want to finish with a couple of quotes from it as I think she sums up the experience much better than I could .

"Secondly, my expectations for the course were greatly exceeded; my goal was to be comfortable with Arc GIS 9 . 1 and create a year long GIS in Geography curriculum . At the end of the workshop, I realized that I was excited and ready to use this software at the core of my geospatial curriculum . The manual you issued, handouts and lab practices are clear and I can easily adapt them to my teaching situation . Additionally, my workmates at STEM were very willing to share their skills and experience and they were fun too!

Photo: STEM Thirdly, the GPS field trips to the JMU’s arboretum and Shenandoah really enhanced my understanding of the local environmental issues (persistent atmospheric haze), and how GPS/GIS can help us understand local spatial relationships . The trips also gave me an appreciation of Virginia’s incredible natural beauty and sense of place . "

We are all extremely grateful for the U .S . Department of Education funding for this project, facilitated by Congressman Goodlatte's office . The success of this endeavor will give these technologies in thousands and thousands of rural students and give them access to a whole new way to look at the world .