All Ages Explore GIS

17 Jul, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

ESRI kids camp fosters curiosity

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Every summer, while beachgoers prepare to bask under a clear blue sky, about 13,000 GIS professionals and their children storm the downtown Convention Center a short distance from the San Diego harbor. The invasion force is a battalion of ESRI users who have flown in from around the world for the ESRI International User Conference (scheduled for August 7-11 this year). Patty McGray, ESRI's lead instructional designer responsible for developing training materials and curriculums, describes the landing: "We pretty much take over the entire Convention Center, the Marriott and several other hotels around it."

As the children's parents head off to keynote sessions and classes, at this unique event the little troopers file into a ballroom marked "GIS Kids Camp." Usually McGray can spot a few familiar faces -- the same mischievous faces from a year or two ago. Some of them may have initially come here for the snack (included in the $25 signup fee), but once they get a taste of the treasure-hunting and puzzle-solving games they can play on digital maps, they may become converts -- "future GIS professionals," as McGray refers to them.

Photo Opportunity with Pocahontas

"We always have a theme," McGray says. "This year, it's exploration." Accordingly, this year's GIS Kids Camp will feature prominent explorers from the Spice Race to the Space Age. Children can expect to meet the likes of Christopher Columbus, John Smith, Pocahontas and astronaut John Glenn in the form of life-size paper cutouts. They'll be surrounded by Mayan ruins and Egyptian pyramids -- atmospheric touches in the backdrop to bring out the inner explorer in the kids.

"The first thing they get," McGray explains, "is a presentation -- what is GIS? Then we'll talk about maps and exploring the world. This year, all the kids, except those in grades K-1, will be participating in a map poster contest. The kids will get an introductory lesson on how to use our software." The room will be equipped with about 20 PCs preloaded with ArcGIS 9.1 Desktop -- not a stripped-down version but the same version a civil engineer might use. (For class schedule at GIS Kids Camp, visit the conference activity page.)

"A good portion of these kids already know how to get around in our software -- even at a young age," McGray says. "Their parents are in the industry, so they have an idea what GIS is and what their parents do. They're quite adept." Once properly briefed, the three groups of kids -- grades 2-4, grades 5-9 and grades 9-12 -- begin their respective adventures. The first group ventures into the heart of Borneo to meet the endangered orangutans, the second is off to early Texas and the third enters the world of 3D mapping.

Grades 2-4: Meet the Orangutan

Nancy Briggs from the OFI (Orangutan Foundation International) is going to introduce the kids to the orangutans. Briggs, a professor from the California State University, Long Beach, fell in love with the hairy-pawed jungle-dweller from Malaysia after she rescued a chimpanzee 25 years ago, according to a story in On-Line 49er, a Web-based university publication. Under her stewardship, the kids will map the habitats of these wonderful apes.

At 2006 ESRI International User Conference's GIS Kids Camp, children will have a chance to map the habitats of the endangered orangutans with the help of Nancy Briggs from Orangutan Foundation International, photographed here with one of her beloved apes.

The budding mapmakers will decide the look and feel of their maps, from icons to color schemes. All the maps made by kids from grades 2-8 will become part of the poster contest at the conference. "They like making maps," McGray observes. "Anything that has to do with the environment and nature, like the orangutans -- it's a big hit with them."

"We hope to instill curiosity and raise awareness about this wonderful but highly threatened species," says Briggs. "We would like to plant seeds in the kids' minds about the importance of orangutans, the need to conserve them and hopefully awareness, which will grow into action as the students mature."

With support from ESRI and other technology providers, OFI combines field data, such as orangutan surveys and satellite data -- to produce information-rich maps that show the orangutans' homes in south central Borneo. Members of OFI's field staff are trained in GIS, which they use to record land use, population increase, illegal logging, illegal mining and other human activities that can impact the survival of the orangutans.

"Through mapping we can show clearly not only environmental and conservation problems, but also their patterns and distributions," says Briggs. "Geographic literacy impacts our thinking, our relationships with others, and our value of the environment. ... Students normally ask, 'Where am I? Where are others?' Examining environmental issues through the digital map technologies makes it easier to see the interrelated problems between issues on various continents."

Grades 5-8: Meet Early Texans

While their junior counterparts are pinpointing the great apes' habitats, kids from grades 5-8 will study the early Texas explorers. They will have a chance to retrace the footsteps of early European adventurers, such as Cabeza de Vaca, who made landfall in 1528 in present-day Florida.

Grade 9-12: Welcome to 3D

"[Grades 9-12] are going to be getting a lot deeper into technology this year," says McGray. "They'll be learning ArcGlobe [a 3D GIS visualization and analysis application, part of ArcGIS 9 3D Analyst]." Because ArcGlobe includes a set of animation tools, the young cartographers will also make a movie or a video loop.

At GIS Kids Camp, attendees from grades 9-12 will be learning the animation tools in ArcGlobe, a 3D GIS visualization and analysis program. The onscreen data here shows world population distribution.

K-1: Create Your Own World

Each of the youngest conference-goers -- those in grades K-1 -- will make a neighborhood map as he or she knows it. Moms and dads may also pitch in.

The Digital Generation

McGray isn't sure whether the kids belong to Generation X or Y, but she's certain about one thing: "The kids today are growing up with technology. They're used to computers. They're not concerned with clicking the wrong buttons like the parents."

Being in charge of 240 kids -- the estimated total attendees of GIS Kids Camp each year -- helps McGray see mapping from a different perspective. "For most adults, it's work. For the kids, it's fun and adventure. Adults are trying to communicate something, some information, with a map. The kids think, 'Oh, I get to put these different symbols and pictures on here, it looks really neat,' so they're looking at it as presentation. ... It really brings home the idea that geography is not just capitals and states. There are lots of elements in the world, and they're interconnected."

The greatest satisfaction she gets, McGray says, is when she overhears the kids say to their parents as they leave, "Can we come back next year?"

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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