Young geographers at Bedford School will soon begin a major survey of their environment, measuring and mapping everything from building density to noise levels in central Bedford. When they present their findings to the local council, the fourth-formers will be sure of their ground. Like the council, they reach decisions with the help of geographical information systems technology.
"GIS has the potential to revolutionise geography teaching," says Dr Adrian Johnson, who has been planning the survey with his students. It's one of the exercises he and fellow professionals outlined recently at a seminar organised by the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers, highlighting sources of help with GIS for schools. For while many teachers may recognise the benefits, few have managed to introduce the technology into their classrooms.
GIS is used in more than 30 industries to make new connections between information and location. Where to site a new skatepark? How to regenerate a river? Why the local increase in mobile phone thefts? GIS software can bring together digital maps, images and all kinds of geographically referenced information, from rainfall figures to census results, to help provide the answers.
However, teachers say it takes too long to get the show on the road. There isn't time for them to find their way around the software packages - which are often designed for use by experts - and track down the right data to feed the system.
At the RGS-IBG, work began two years ago on a scheme to help. Education officer Judith Mansell says: "We found many teachers were saying, 'I know GIS is good, but how do I get started?'."
The society has produced web resources explaining the technology, together with case studies of GIS in action in classrooms. There's also a software guide - the result of an evaluation carried out by teachers and a GIS specialist. Work is now focused on making it easier for teachers to source data.
The society's professional development day in November showed how the use of GIS not only gives students an opportunity to apply all their geography skills, it also helps them understand how geography is used in everyday life.
At Bedford School, students are working with ArcView software, a package used in industry. For their environmental survey, four groups will be armed with a mini-version of the software on a handheld computer. The device features a global positioning system to help them locate the exact spots they have designated as places to take observations and measurements. Back in the classroom, ArcView will be used to map the data they have gathered, allowing students to build their own picture of their environment on screen. They will use maps to mix and match different types of information - the condition of buildings, traffic volumes, noise levels - looking for links, identifying blackspots and testing ideas for improvements. "This is geography in action - real-world stuff," says Adrian, who is director of the school's Centre for GIS, which offers training for teachers.
Other Bedford projects include a microclimate survey, tying in with the A-level urban topic, and an exercise to photograph and map hazards on footpaths.
At Lincoln Minster School, head of geography Lawrence Collins has been using GIS for a year and says it has opened up a new world for his students. "It helps Year 7 understand how to interpret a map as a three-dimensional landscape - a fundamental skill. On the interactive whiteboard we do some relief modelling, then gradually fade in an Ordnance Survey map. That really helps with contours, which children find especially difficult."
As coursework, his GCSE students compare suburban Lincoln with an inner-city area. They use the fading-in technique to prepare for their fieldwork, bringing together modern and historical maps with aerial photos to get a feel for how the areas have developed. "We are helping them visualise, rather than just assuming everyone has map skills," says Lawrence, who uses Digital Worlds software.
Some schools prefer to do their GIS on the web. Dr Ian Selmes, from Oakham School in Rutland, was one of the teachers who evaluated software for the RGS-IBG. He says: "Some of the software is amazing. But it is rather complex, and the difficulty for most teachers is finding the time to practise and then apply it in a way the pupils can use.
"The easy way to get started is to use internet services. We use websites like Streetmap, Multimap and Google Maps, which are straightforward. You can select your scale, identify particular types of information and compare the maps with satellite images or aerial photos. It may not be what a GIS professional would look for, but most teachers are not GIS professionals."
David Rayner teaches at The Grammar School for Girls Wilmington, in Kent, and agrees the web is a great place to start. "Students can use it at home, without specialised software, and get the basic idea of how they can combine and manipulate information."
David is founder of the GeoInteractive website, where he invites teachers to share their resources, and he has used several GIS packages. At his previous school, work included a Year 9 project to map local housing and employment patterns with the help of census data. He says: "It took a while to set up - this kind of project means shifting huge amounts of information - but once we could concentrate on analysing the material, we did some really good geography."
For teachers who have had difficulty finding data, the good news is that there are plans to create a one-stop source on the web, where schools can find and use what they need. Becta is working to encourage a range of organisations to co-operate in the scheme. Ordnance Survey has agreed to make its mapping data available, and a pilot begins this year.
l RGS-IBG web resources www.rgs.orgeducation Bedford School Centre for GIS www.bedfordschool.org.uk