MAD staff help Environmental Science students put GIS mapping into action

In March of this year, MAD Scientist Associates was approached by Chad Schwinnen and Ali Laughbaum of the New Albany High School (N.A.H.S.) Environmental Science Program to discuss the feasibility of graphically cataloguing (i.e. mapping) the natural resources located in and around the school campus. If such an endeavor were to gain enough momentum and support, this initiative would serve as the first of many phases to holistically develop a Land Management Plan for the campus and its surrounding natural areas.

In order to be successful on all fronts, the mapping effort would need to integrate sound scientific prowess while providing a gateway for student education and development. In other words: MAD and N.A.H.S. sought to develop a plan that not only had real-world applications, but also presented opportunities to teach students real-world skills—skills that are often used in the field of environmental science. If this could be successfully accomplished, efforts could go beyond the education opportunities. The maps produced during the effort could later be used to develop land management strategies and secure funding for future land enhancement projects, thus providing a gateway for environmental education and habitat enhancement to continue for years to come. The school would be well on its way toward providing students with an improved eco-learning space while simultaneously giving students a first-person view of the world as an environmental professional. As one could guess, such a plan would require a great amount of student involvement in the data collection and mapping process, and so the team began to develop a plan that would fit the bill.

MAD kicked off the campaign by having their GIS Specialist, Aaron Laver, conduct training sessions for the program’s students and staff. The focus of these sessions was to provide students with the appropriate tools and knowledge to conduct as much of the collection and mapping work on their own as possible. In addition to technical, hands-on exercises where students learned how to operate GPS units and mapping applications, the sessions were intended to help the students realize the importance of their role in the land management process. Aaron covered the fundamentals of data collection, demonstrated how data collection relates to the world of natural resources, and stressed the importance of precision and accuracy when conducting GPS activities. 

With the training under their belt, exceptional Environmental Science Program leadership in place, and a motivation to dive into “something real” that could be used for years into the future, students at N.A.H.S. now had all the tools and resources necessary to begin changing their campus for the better. Under the leadership of Ali, Chad, and retired Environmental Science teacher Bill Somerlot, the students began, and have just recently completed, the first of two large-scale mapping events. Using MAD’s training and professional-grade GPS units in the field, the students have logged more than 21,000 GPS positions and generated over 1,400 features—all of which locate and describe the campus’s natural resources. Students are currently in the process of using this data to develop an informative catalog of geographically represented features, such as trails, streams, large-diameter trees, and wildlife habitat. 

MAD’s Education Specialist and Botanist, Jenny Adkins, will visit New Albany in a few weeks to kick off the program’s second large-scale mapping event. Here, she’ll venture out into the field with students to identify priority resources and fine-tune the mapping efforts, enabling students to effectively and efficiently put a close to their field activity in the mapping phase. Following the second event, the students should have everything they need to develop an accurate and informative graphical representation of the campus natural resources. 

So where does all of this fit into the grand scheme of things? As of now, the Land Management Plan is in a constant state of evolution, and we aren’t sure how it’s going to pan out in the long run. However, what we DO know is that once the data has been collected, maps have been made, and students have had a healthy dose of the environmental field life—the Environmental Science Program efforts will have set the stage for positive ecosystem change within their community, provided stakeholders with an accurate readout of the natural resources at their doorstep, and empowered more than 130 students to change their community for the better, which is something impossible to ignore. 

Maps are like campfires — everyone gathers around them...
― Sonoma Ecology Center, GIS/IS Program Web Site

-- Aaron Laver, GIS and Water Resources Specialist