GIS as a Tool in Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies:
Student, Teacher, and Community Perspectives

Marsha Alibrandi is an Assistant Professor at
North Carolina State University

The twentieth century concludes in much the same way as it began--with the redrawing of maps. However the new maps are not so much of geographic territory, but of landscapes depicting new and developing networks of finance, people, and culture . . . The ultimate work of education is to learn to be a human being . . . But as we struggle for new identities we must be able to transcend these notions of territory and engage new concepts of energy and place (Hartoonian, 1996: 6-8).

One of the ways that energy and place are being re-mapped by certain schools and communities is in environmental community service projects. Using Geographic Information System (GIS), students are conducting original research and spatial analysis. Originally developed for international resource and environmental analysis, and later for military use, GIS is now applied to national and global weather reporting, topographic and census mapping, and thousands of municipal, county, state, national and global planning and marketing applications (Foresman, 1998).

This article describes an application of GIS technology as a tool in an environmental community service project in which students and adult community members participated in water quality monitoring and biological assessment. I discuss the function of GIS in community service learning toward the goal of a socially and environmentally healthier community through a balance of actual learning experiences and a virtual technological application. I focus on how students, teachers, and community members made sense of the technology in the context of the environ-mental inquiry. I discuss issues and problems associated with technology in education and recommend a cautious and critical balance of actual ("experiential, " "hands-on," "real-world, "authentic") and virtual learning, urging educators to teach with technologies that are focused on production versus consumption; that empower rather entertain.

What Is GIS?

Question Technology?
The economic phenomenon of skyrocketing computer and telecommunications equipment sales toward the end of the 20th century reflects an underlying assumption that any technology is desirable. What some describe as a belief, others as a religion, and still others as an addiction to "technology" so permeate our fin-de-millennium culture, that we do not even consider it critically; it is summarily assumed beneficial. This cultural assumption has led to the reallocation of millions of dollars to implement "educational technology."1 As American schools race to meet perceived demands of technology education, many critical questions remains unanswered: What are impacts of technology on learning? How do students make sense of technology?

In their critiques of technique,2 the social mystique and "buy-in" to technological approaches across social institutions, Raymond Callahan (1962), Ivan Illich (1970), Jaques Ellul (1980), Neil Postman (1993), Henry C. Johnson, Jr. (1994), Robert Yager (1993; 1996) and others (STS, 1995) have pointedly illustrated how the values of industry and science have transformed those institutions; particularly education. So embedded are our cultural institutions in our technology-dependence that we in the post-industrial world cannot conceive of life or giving validity or value to life outside of the technological paradigm. This is how we have systematically devalued the human contributions of societies that are not as technology-dependent as we are. From our ethnocentric perspective, we discount proven practices until validated by "scientific" means, even when those practices may represent thousands of years of collective human wisdom, and require less dependence on technological "solutions."

Thus, the types of knowledge, or what I prefer to call knowing (Alibrandi, 1997) that have in effect led to environmental and social sustainability are those that the technology-dependent society may in fact be losing. Knowing in the gerundive form focuses on ongoing, ontological knowing; one that is internal and developmental. This knowing is devalued by over-exposure to media. It is what Schon describes as "reflection-in-action" (Schon, 1983) and what Belenky et al describe as an "inner" way of knowing (Belenky et al, 1986). Because of an emphasis on efficiency, post-industrial societies discount differing types of knowing in the much same way that religious dogma invalidated scientific knowledge during the Medieval era (Brewer & Chinn, 1993).

While alternative views have begun to influence this ethnocentrism, and as the 'science, technology, and society' movement provides locations of dialogue about the process, an ability to remain both critical and facile in diverse 'ways of knowing' must be balanced. If the hominidae are identified by the fact that we alone among the great apes developed stone technologies, then this is part of our phylogenetic development. The key distinction here is "part;" for there are other domains of human cognition yet to be recognized and developed.

We have used technologies to understand physical space as distant as "outer space." As we now approach the "inner space" of the brain, and its interacting organic systems, we must neither ignore the wisdoms of ancient societies, nor the new learning provided by imaging technologies. Will the ancient wisdom of acupuncture practice lead medical-technological research? If we are to retain healthy social and environmental systems, how will we use technology toward sustainable goals? The combining of diverse practices should guide us into the next millennium. In this, the wisdom of culturally diverse technologies, biologies, and medical practices is included.

Finally, before leaving this discussion of questioning technology, let us focus briefly on the power of this questioning. John Penick in Yager's (1996) STS volume discusses the role of questions in science education in a complementary yet different fashion than I have (Alibrandi, 1997). My focus is more neurobiological; in other words, what kind of brain function is engaged in asking and considering questions? It is asking students to raise questions both with and about technology that will lead to a better understanding and integration using diverse ways of knowing. This represents not just a cognition of technology, but a metacognition about it. This internal reflective process is one that must also be experienced in order to balance teaching and learning with computer technology.

How is computer technology part of learning to be human?

I share Illich's impressionistic metaphor (1997) of education and technology as substituting one addiction for another. If we continue to view education as a technological system, rather than as an organic component of our communities, we will have so "bought-in" to a partial view of human, cognitive, and social development that certain of our human capabilities may become atrophied (if they haven't already).

In so saying, I share a perspective of refusing to limit education to the formulaic approaches promoted by developers and marketers of standards, standardized tests, test manuals, and other test products. These "replicable" or "expert" approaches are those Ellul calls technique (1980). To view valid "knowledge" as only that which is taught and learned "systematically" is to deny the creativity of innovation, which by definition lies in what is not yet. To teach human beings with so unwholisitic a view is to limit both the scope of human capacity and the functions of education within the community.

Janice Koch, in Yager's (1996) Science, Technology and Society volume concurs: "Science education has not made space for the truly creative, inventive child who believes that there may be another way." (Koch, in Yager, 1996: 307). She describes ways of learning and knowing that are undervalued by standards and assessments.

Once, while doing science with middle school children on a small rural island off the coast of Maine, I learned how to spot a clam in the wet sand off this island coast. The middle schoolers who taught me how to spot a clam were adept at observing the slightest differences in the surface of the sand. The clues to their clams' whereabouts involved an almost intuitive ability to perceive minor changes in their coastal environment. Their skill in this arena is a valuable attribute for scientific study. Nobody ever told them that (1996: 308).

Beyond the known and formulaic, it is the innovative and intuitive that allow us to "learn to be a human being" as Hartoonian reminds us. It is the processes of learning and creating, not just the consumption of books, boxes or bytes of information that constitute this learning. Therefore, teaching for this learning would mean acknowledging multiple ways of knowing, and providing experiences in which those ways might develop.

Balancing the Actual with the Virtual

My research focuses on a particular research application of GIS that balances the actual with the virtual. Some teachers have directly introduced GIS into original research projects, and teach the GIS application itself to students. These students have conducted original field studies and are learning, beyond entering information into a database, to conduct spatial analyses. Because GIS is generally a municipally-owned tool used for planning and development, teachers using GIS have integrated education with community problem-solving. Here, I believe, lies a powerful tool not just for integrating education and community through environmental studies and technologies, but for reconnecting youth with their communities in environmental inquiry. In the process, students learn high-demand career skills, work in collaborative teams in the environment, and make real contributions to their communities. This type of project fulfills the promise and premise of STS as it engages students in implementing Hartoonian's call to "engage new concepts of energy and place."

To put this discussion in a temporal context, certain phenomena specific to our point in time are relevant. First is the fin-de-millennium concept of "diversity," a value whose source derives from E.O. Wilson's description of ecological relationships as dynamic and interconnected systems of biodiversity (Wilson, 1989). There has been a call from institutional leaders in economics, ecology, and education for models of institutions based on living systems rather than mechanical systems. This concept of diversity must also apply to our value on ways of knowing and meaning.

The second phenomenon is that uncanny characteristic facility with computers by a segment of the generation that has "grown up digital." While this is a generational phenomenon, it is not a whole generational phenomenon; it is a class-bound generational phenomenon (Tapscott, 1998). And while many in this generation may view technology as humanity's salvation, they are still youth that require wholisitc actual experiences in order to develop fully and to use their skills wisely. Wisdom is not inherent within computer skills. In fact, we may more easily identify wisdom from skill by balancing the actual with the virtual in education.

An Environmental Community Service Project

This case study describes an ongoing environmental community service project involving volunteers from middle school, high school, community college, and the community at large. In the partnership project, a non-profit land trust, a community college, public schools, and municipal agencies collaborated in water quality monitoring and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) training and sampling. Textual documentation from the project, interviews of student volunteers, trainers, and collaborators, and photographic and computer-generated products were used as data sources. The study focused upon community relations and the combination of environmental and technological applications across a year-long project, and addresses the merits and problems of GIS education and implementation.

In the project, the students sampled water from a local river weekly throughout the fall. The locations of their sampling connected upstream and downstream sampling efforts by adult citizen volunteers. The students assisted in locating the exact points where the sampling was conducted using a GPS (Global Positioning System) unit under the guidance of a town GIS Specialist. During the winter months, the students participated in ten weeks of database and GIS training, compiling and analyzing the data they had gathered. Their results led them to further refine their questions for spring field work, adding habitat assessments to their water sampling regime.

What is GPS?

Student wearing a GPS unit "gathers points" from orbiting satellites.\

How did the students view their work?

The activities described here took place in the context of a community service project; students were not required to participate, but came, week after week to work in a natural setting on a small river. It wasn't glorious work; there were no fans or cheerleaders urging these adolescents on, but they described the project as "fun." The participating volunteers placed a higher value on environmental field work than on the computer technology. GIS technology, in the participants' view, was secondary to the primary function of the actual environmental field work. From their perspective, GIS technology was viewed as a tool for analysis and public education. In this way, the computer technology was seen to provide a virtual public education function within the context of their environmental community service.

Further, when asked to describe the types of technology used across the project, students lumped together the computer technologies (GPS and GIS) with pH meters, water testing kits, clipboards, nets, slide and overhead projectors, and VCRs. Student responses are shown in Fig. 1., below. The responses are represented from left to right by chronological age; the youngest, an eighth grade female to the left; the oldest, an eleventh grade female to the far right. The three central comments are those of the male students from the "Class of 2000."

Figure 1.

What types of technology did you use in your participation?

GIS, GPS, Water Quality test kits, software GIS, GPS, stream test kits, pH meters, flow meters. Water test kits, computers, flow meters, nets, clipboards and field data-gathering equipment. Water Quality test methods, pH meters, flow meters, GIS, GPS GIS, GPS, slide projector, overhead projector, video, VCR

Perhaps due to their generational perspective, the students took a more wholistic view of computer use as just another tool. Chronologically, most of these students are from the "Class of 2000," ranging in birth years from 1980-1983. Students saw the use of GIS applications as secondary to what they considered their primary investigative learning; in this case, the "hands-on" water quality and biological assessments performed in the field.

Secondary students learned the GIS application more quickly and with less resistance than their college student or adult colleagues. Project participants from the community college, only a few years older, but not of the "growing up digital" generation, demonstrated greater resistance and slower comprehension and mastery of the computer applications. This tendency was even further marked in the adult participants, only one of whom "took to" the GIS instruction.

Gender differences have been studied for decades (Liben in TERC, 1995; 1982), but the introduction of a new technology in geographic education opens additional research terrain for investigations of gender and geography. About using GIS, an eighth grade female student explained:

It gave us a place to put our information and organize it. It helped us to actually see what we were doing in the field from a different perspective. It was easier to find the information after we put it into the GIS. (Alibrandi, 1997).

Only the female respondents described this attribute of the GIS as a "place to put" information for its display. Figure 2., below indicates possible gender differences in perspective on GIS utility.
Male students described the GIS and GPS (Global Positioning System) as "connecting" their field data to existing land use maps. Thus, the sense of having provided real and useful data as part of their field study was enhanced by the computer application. Many volunteer water quality studies exist in isolation from other local data; it was through joining the databases using a GIS that the spatial analysis was facilitated. Without GIS, the data would have been hand-drawn onto a map to display the situated effects. With the GIS, successive years worth of data can be analyzed and compared, both in spatial and/or in graphed formats.

Figure 2.

How did using the GPS benefit the project?

It told us actually where we were and gave us a place to put our information. It gave us a "downstream" perspective for measurement and comparison. It hooked into the GIS and the data tables and maps and the program overall. It helped us pinpoint the sites with true latitude & longitude, and to piece the maps together to connect the river with the GIS. It helped us get a better sense of the maps and to pinpoint the sites on the map, and to connect to the interactive maps and tables in the GIS. It made things more visual for us and for our presentations. It connected our data and made our case more professionally.

How was GIS used?

It gave us a place to put our information and organize it. It helped us to actually see what we were doing in the field from a different perspective. It was easier to find the information after we put it into the GIS. It used the information from the GPS. The data we gathered, we entered into GIS to connect it with existing map information [layers]. To show "what our results were" to compare sites & comparative effects to determine cause & effects. We used GIS to map the sites and to plot where high concentrations were nearby, and to analyze from the plot maps what the industrial uses were that might have impacts [or be point sources]. We were able to lay out maps and put all our information in one spot. It made it easier for us to look at all of our data and analyze it. And to make it clearer in presentations and to review it ourselves.

Do you expect that you will work with GIS in some future capacity?

I hope so! Probably in college depending on my choices.

(female, gr.8)

We'll use it this year, I know that. It'll depend on whether I go into science or geography.

(male, gr. 9)

Probably--in Marine Biology or mapping the seafloor--in navigation or other marine science work

(male, gr. 9)

Yes, I think it'll help me in the future--I used it this summer! I mapped the shellfish we planted this year. We also took the GPS out to the areas of high concentration and low densities [of shellfish] and coordinated them with aerial photos. We mapped some commercial and private shellfish grants.

(male, gr. 9)

Yes--I used it this summer! Probably doing field work in college.

(female, gr. 11)

In view of these facets of GIS application, the need to sequence certain prerequisite skills emerged as a focus for study. Preparation for GIS instruction might include basic keyboarding skills, database and/or spreadsheet skills, basic geography, cartography and orienteering skills. As teachers develop familiarity with the uses of GIS, these curricular issues may become more apparent. Fundamentally, this assumes a virtual application of actual research findings.

Middle school teachers Ann Thompson and Rita Hagevik have found that middle school students needed to apply the GIS to a problem; that simply learning the GIS software was unacceptably "boring."
Thus a hands-on application or manipulation of data within a GIS format appears to be the most effective practice. This lends itself to the metacognitive level of thinking and learning both with and about the new technological application.

Teacher Perspectives

Teachers that have introduced GIS have commented on the ways in which collaborative use of the application has expanded the classroom to both the environment and the community.

This is a wonderful collaboration with the Town. The Town has shared its GPS/GIS resources, so we have expanded computer and GIS resources in the school. Students are now our liaisons to the town and the town has gained the energy of its youth as active and productive citizens. . . .There is a new GIS course in the curriculum this year. Our work is spurring other courses to use GIS in Business courses and CAD courses. There have been lots of requests by Social Studies teachers for maps from the Town--the teachers are learning about the technology and its products. . . . The project developed student leadership and career development--several of the students have been hired by the town already.

While this coastal biology teacher's comments focus not on the biology that drove the project, there is a strong relationship to the characteristics of the National Association for Science, Technology, and Society (Yager, 1993) approach. The omission of comment on the science contrasts with the students' views that they were learning aquatic and marine biology.

Since GIS is often municipally-owned, it was viewed by parents and community members as an economically and environmentally beneficial use of technology for the community. A local non-profit land trust initiated the collaboration between the town and the school. Prior to the project's first year, an intense debate over school budgeting had divided the two entities. The land trust and the school's Community Service coordinator saw an opportunity for more positive relations, and worked together to secure state funding for the project. Local agents from the GIS department, the Conservation department, and the Coastal Health Resources office collaborated in the design and training of students and adult volunteers in the project.

Community Perspectives:
Public awareness was raised by putting out information and communicating it using GIS. Before, we had arguments. Now we have "hard data." When children are involved, and they're doing research in the community, there is greater consensus. The "trickle-up" theory really works! As a community member, whatever is done to raise students' consciousness, raises the consciousness of adults. . . . The school has gained some tangible resources and a real-world multi-disciplinary project. The skills students are learning transcend the traditional boundaries of the school and have inspired new innovations. . . . The community service is valued in multiple settings across the community. Through this project, the environmental organizations and agencies have made connections with the business community.

Parent perspectives:
Students are a very valuable resource--they're full of energy, they want to work in the environment, and it's good economics. My son has shown me commitment to this program. School recruiters were most impressed by participation in [the project].
[The project] makes practical applications of skills students are learning in school, and enhance their interest and effort at school. Finally the concept of "slope" in Math class had some practical application! . . . The intergenerational aspect eases the transition from Middle to High to college level. Presenting at a university conference added significantly to [our daughter's] self-confidence. This experience has helped our daughter to make better decisions about her future.

Problems implementing GIS

It would be a misrepresentation of gross omission not to mention the many problems associated with initiating GIS use in a school-community project. While the outcomes have eclipsed the relative importance of those problems, it is important to acknowledge for those interested in instituting this technology that "start-up" is more complex than loading a software program.

The problems encountered in the GIS education implementation included hardware, software, and general public school computer lab issues (viruses, time constraints, etc.). GIS training in an intergenerational group presented unique problems and implications. While middle and high school students, more "technology-ready" than adults, learned GIS applications quickly, adults progressed more slowly and became frustrated more easily, causing disturbances. Out of this intergenerational training experience comes the recommendation that trained students become team leaders or instructors' assistants to aid adults and new learners in subsequent GIS training sessions.


Acknowledging the associated problems with implementing GIS and the problems with reinforcing a technology-related learning approach, there seem to be some community benefits to its inclusion in a balanced program of actual and virtual research. Whether the community in question will, in fact benefit from the environmental assessments conducted will only be borne out over the long term.

The characteristics of the project seem to align with those of the STS "megatrend" (Yager, 1996) and the students apparently focused on the science versus technology. Also reinforced were some of Tapscott's (1998) findings among those of the generation currently "growing up digital" regarding facility with technology and a sense of social responsibility. In their own words, students described a "connection" between their field work and the mapping of local officials. This connection represents the difference between technologies that entertain versus those that educate and empower. In the act of producing information that constructs "new concepts of energy and place," students involved in actual research participated in a wholistic and balanced experience that included a virtual application. This distinction, I caution, is critical as we approach integrating computer technologies and as we construct educational communities.


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Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly; The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.

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1See Shaw et al (1997)

2Callahan in Education and the Cult of Efficiency documents the history of industrial efficiency models as systematizing education. Illich (1973) observes that the technological system is built upon "radical monopolies, a monopoly of consumption by advertising, of circulation by transports, of health by the existence of official medicine, of knowledge by schools, etc." Ellul in The Technological Society (1980) summarizes, "It is essential to realize that the man always spoken of is now a technicized man. . . . And here is the final proposition. Man in our society has no intellectual, moral, or spiritual reference point for judging and criticizing technology." Ellul's "technicized man" is one that he describes as dependent upon technology to define his choices and his freedom; that freedom and choice are at once defined, limited, and prescribed by a self-perpetuating technological system. Postman in Technopoly (1993) classifies cultures into "three types: tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies. At the present time, each types may be found somewhere on the planet. . . . Technopoly eliminates alternatives to itself in precisely the same way that Aldous Huxley outlined in Brave New World. It does not make them illegal. It does not make them immoral. It does not even make them unpopular. It makes them invisible and therefore irrelevant. And it does so by redefining what we mean by religion, by art, by family, by politics, by history, by privacy, by truth, by intelligence, so that our definitions fit its new requirements." Johnson (1994) in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society reflects, "my concern today is with technicized education . . . What can, what should, what must a technologically mediated education accept as its moral responsibility in all this? What will be the ethic at he heart of its resistance? Such an ethic of resistance will have its origin in a moral critique, and a practical plan of action, that consciously resists the dehumanization of persons through their captivity to Technique. If education is our conscious effort to realize our humanity, education will be a central locus in this struggle." In The Science Teacher (1993), Yager outlines the characteristics of a Science, Technology and Society (STS) approach. Too numerous to list here, the foci are on local issues, problem-solving, citizenship and responsibility, authentic research, applying skepticism, and considering the political, economic, moral, and ethical aspects of science and technology. In his preface to Science/Technology/Society As Reform in Science Education (1996), Yager reminds us, "Interestingly, technology (how the human-made world operates) is seen as more important today than science (how the natural world operates). And yet, it is rarely taught to all students across the elementary and middle school years."