Friday, January 27, 2012

GIS at Ft. Dorchester High School

In 2011, Mark Musselman, education director at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest was awarded a $1000 grant by the South Carolina Geographic Alliance (SCGA).  The grant went toward the purchase of Global Positioning System (GPS) units that could be used to collect data for use in Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  Not only is that a mouthful of acronyms, it is incredibly powerful technology!

Just about everyone is familiar with GPS technology, but GPS latitude/longitude coordinates for where you are and where you wish to go have little meaning without all the GIS layers that get lumped under “GPS technology.”  The road map the shows on the navigator screen is a GIS data layer.  All the buildings shown on the map, including the critical brand name coffee shops along the way, are part of GIS data layers.  Picking a hotel that is within walking distance of your favorite coffee shop as well as a movie theater and a pizza parlor, is possible using data layers overlapping in a GIS database…and you thought you would never again use a Venn diagram.

On Tuesday, Mark Musselman took GIS data files for species and trails in the swamp and traveled to Dr. Michael Becwar’s environmentalstudies classes at Fort Dorchester High School.  In the computer lab, students began creating their own maps using the site.  With a satellite image as a base map, students could differentiate between the wetter and drier areas in the swamp based on the color of vegetative green.  The wetter areas are dominated by bald cypress and tupelo gum trees, which show as a lighter green in the image, while the slightly higher, drier areas support oaks and other trees showing as darker green on the image.  After loading the alligator sightings data layer, students discovered that alligators are not seen throughout the swamp, but found only in deep water areas where trees are not growing and sunlight can reach the Earth’s surface.  Based on that knowledge and without ever traveling to the Congaree National Park, students were able to predict where in the park’s boundaries alligators would likely be found.

Image by Mark Musselman
Later, students loaded snake data layers and discovered that brown water snakes remain toward the middle of the swamp while cottonmouths tend to be found closer to the edges of the swamp.  Referring to the free Beidler Forest app on an iPod Touch (initial units purchased with a previous SCGA grant), students learned that brown water snakes only eat fish, so they stay close to their prey in areas of deeper water.  Meanwhile, cottonmouths eat fish, frogs, snakes, birds, and rodents, so they exploit larger areas of the swamp even when those areas become dry.

Image by Mark Musselman
Finally, a quick glance at a map showing a variety of Prothonotary Warbler breeding territories was all that was necessary for students to see that all territories, and therefore all areas of the swamp, are not equal.  Territories around the nature center were shown to be exceeding large and isolated, while territories deep within the swamp at the eastern end of the boardwalk were small and densely packed.  Why?  A check of the iPod app showed that Prothonotary Warblers prefer to nest in cavities over or near water.  The western territories around the nature center consisted of dry, upland areas and therefore elicited little competition allowing for preposterous land claims.  On the other hand, territories at the eastern end of the boardwalk consisted of prime wetland habitat forcing males to settle for smaller (and quite sufficient) territories lest they exhaust themselves fruitlessly attempting to defend larger claims.

Students were able to make all of the swampy deductions noted above without leaving their school.  According to Dr. Joseph Kerski, Curriculum Development Manager for ESRI and recent president of the National Council forGeographic Education, “Accelerating globalization means that we can no longer be complacent about increasing the amount of spatial thinking in the educational curriculum at all levels.  We're also starting to realize that global issues, such as biodiversity loss, urban sprawl, energy needs, water quality and availability, natural hazards, and human health, are becoming increasingly complex and beginning to affect our everyday lives.  Moreover, they all have a spatial component.  To grapple with these issues for the 21st century requires a populace that's adept at using GIS and other geotechnologies.”  Students at Fort Dorchester High School have begun moving in that direction!

You can interact with the map and all the data layers at

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