Virtual solutions to real problems

15th April 2005 at 01:00
From pizza delivery to flood prevention, a Sussex college is using geographic information systems to evaluate and make decisions about their local area. Dorothy Walker takes a look

Where should you head for a hamburger in the Sussex town of Lewes? And how likely are you to be stung by a wasp on the way? For geography students at Oathall Community College in Haywards Heath, questions like these provide the lead-in to a complex decision-making exercise that would tax many town planners. The project used to hinge on a field trip. But Year 7 pupils are soon to conduct the entire exercise on screen, with the kind of sophisticated technology used by planning professionals.

The project was conceived to help Year 6 pupils from Oathall's feeder primaries make the transition to secondary school. The original idea was for pupils and an Oathall teacher to visit Lewes and its nature reserve to collect data. When they arrived at the school in autumn, the students'

first geography exercise was to follow up the trip. Paul Ticehurst, head of humanities at Oathall, says: "The reserve is very close to the town centre and there is pressure for it to be developed. So we asked pupils to analyse their data and come up with a decision on whether it should be kept or developed."

The trip was popular, but due to time constraints it wasn't possible to repeat the exercise, so the virtual tour was created. Paul used InfoMapper, an internet service that enables schools to employ digital maps and aerial photos as gateways to other learning materials. Project materials can be linked to places, so a click on the map will reveal facts, figures, pictures or video footage relating to that location. InfoMapper provides maps and aerial photos online over a broadband connection, as well as the software for creating and sharing resources.

InfoMapper was created by Plymouth LEA to give schools access to digital maps used by local councils. It is an example of geographical information systems (GIS) technology, which links data with locations to help with challenges ranging from flood prevention to pizza delivery.

Paul created three introductory exercises to put the nature reserve in context. In each exercise, he used digital photos he had taken around Lewes, and linked them to points on an Ordnance Survey map and aerial photograph. Pupils have to match a series of pictures and "most likely to ..." scenarios - where, for example, are you most likely to be stung by a wasp? Paul says: "It is a thinking skills exercise, and they have to justify their answers. So if they don't choose the nature reserve but the supermarket, because wasps would be attracted to sticky wrappers in the bins, that's fine by me."

They follow up by orientating a series of views, using information on the map and aerial photos to determine which way Paul was facing when he took each shot. In the final exercise, the aim is to create a land-use map of Lewes. Paul has subdivided the town into a dozen areas, and pupils have to determine their use - industrial, low-cost housing, town centre - from the picture linked to each area.

Photographs and background data will be used to create an on-screen tour of the nature reserve, enabling pupils to collect information on flora and fauna and investigate how the reserve is used and managed. They will then have to come up with their verdict on its future, justifying their decision. Paul says: "There is a real wow factor to InfoMapper. You can zoom in close, and fade between different maps, or between a map and aerial photo. It is particularly impressive on an interactive whiteboard."

He says that pupils will still have opportunities to work in the field. "I would not advocate replacing every field trip with a screen-based experience. But certainly the number of visits is in decline, for various reasons - and InfoMapper can bring places to our doorstep. I believe it will encourage teachers to collaborate and share resources. If a teacher in the Lake District produces materials, we can access them here and edit them for our own use."

He has also put together a Year 10 resource that pupils can use for independent study, after they make a class expedition to the Newhaven coast. Three photographic trails provide insights into the natural coastal system, the problems in the area and how these issues are being addressed.

Paul has not yet let pupils loose on the task of creating their own resources, but says: "It can be done. I come from a technophobe background, and my knowledge of GIS technology is virtually zero. But I do know that I can use this system."

ICT in geography

* InfoMapper is run by WebBased, which took over the development of the system from Plymouth LEA and the South West Grid for Learning. Charles Worth, InfoMapper project manager for WebBased, says: "The maps can act as an index to any educational resource that is connected with a location, and they can be used right across the curriculum."

InfoMapper has been piloted in the South-east and South-west, where it is available to all schools, and Charles says that five of the eight remaining regions in England have now agreed to include their maps.

InfoMapper includes world maps as well as UK Ordnance Survey maps. Paul Ticehurst says: "At the InfoMapper resource library I can search for materials by age or by subject. One resource is dedicated to webcams - someone has taken a map of the world and linked it to webcams on the internet. Click on a spot on the map, and it takes you straight to the webcam site."

Tel: 01752 791021 www.infomapper.com

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