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A map's a map for a' that;Curriculum

Douglas Blane finds out how Geographic Information Systems are changing school work

During his sixth year at secondary school Stewart McCall attended a field trip in Cumnock run by geography teacher Henry Anderson. Ten years later both men found themselves working at South Ayrshire Council. Now they have worked together to help geography departments in all the local secondaries to acquire an advanced computer system used worldwide by universities, businesses and governments. The next stage will be to introduce it to primaries.

That is how things often develop in the real world - small random events lead to major changes. But government and business hate that sort of thing and go to great lengths to try to predict and control a chaotic future. Which is why Geographic Information Systems are so widely used.

"Until recently we've been using GIS in the building, roads and planning departments rather than in education," says Stewart McCall, the council's GIS co-ordinator. "But in the United States they've had it in the schools for several years, and Henry and I were keen to get it into ours."

At its simplest GIS is a computer system for producing maps of any size, with the centre of the map at any place you choose. So geography teachers can now replace tattered, obsolete single copies of Ordnance Survey maps with any number of crisp bang up-to-date ones, with the school or a pupil's house at the centre.

But if that was all the system could do it would be useful, but not very interesting. What makes GIS more than just maps-on-a-disc is that detailed data obtained from census returns, fieldwork and the user's own research can be imported, analysed and displayed on the maps in a variety of colourful and informative ways. Aerial photographs can also be scanned and combined with maps and data. All this provides a powerful tool to visualise options and explore different scenarios.

At Belmont Academy in Ayr, Mr McCall demonstrates its advanced features to Sixth Year Studies geography students: "Here we have a street map with Conservative wards in blue and Labour in red. Now we can bring out trends in the data - this is voter share; this is turnout; these are majorities at the last election. We can show population density, types of housing, car ownership, unemployment... We can look at average age in South Ayrshire and find areas where it's higher.

"This is Prestwick Academy - let's zoom in on the geography department. There's a car with its sunroof open. Look at those houses - you can even see where someone's hung their washing out to dry."

Henry Anderson, South Ayrshire's outdoor education and geography adviser, says: "I think GIS is going to change the nature of geography teaching right through the school. In primary you could make a big map of the town, lay it on a table and then make models of the school, the children's homes, shops etc. Then you could get the children to look at different journeys to school and identify points of danger.

"With older children you can do a lot more with map-reading skills. Orienteering is popular in these parts and we usually start around the school grounds. I can now make large-scale maps and set out a course anywhere I want."

David Brown, principal teacher of geography at Belmont Academy, says the ability to integrate information the pupils have gathered has potential:

"This would be great for the older children where you can put in data, plot things out, identify areas of conflicting use. Troon Harbour development, for example, is causing serious traffic problems. So you could analyse different routes taking account of housing density, where old people live, and so on. Then you could analyse it to find which routes would have the least and the greatest impact on the town. I'd see that as an excellent project for Advanced Higher or Higher."

Morag Forster, a pupil at Prestwick Academy, is doing a field study of the seaside community of Dunure for her Sixth Year Studies project. "That means I ask people questions, take measurements and study the information I get back. GIS should be really useful because I can make a map of the exact area I'm working on and put the data onto it. I've been having a few computer problems at school, but now I think I know what I'm doing. I'm going back there right now to try it all out."

The licence fee local councils pay Ordnance Survey for computer access covers using their maps use in education. So they can be available to schools at no extra cost. For information on GIS in Scottish schools, contact Stewart McCall on 01292 612733. For information on GIS itself and its use in American schools: http:www.esri.comindustriesk-12k-12.html

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