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Fall 2002
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A Place-Based Educational Model Turbo-Charges Students With GIS and GPS

In Steamboat Springs, Colorado, School Children Provide Demonstrable and Lasting Value to the Community

By Candace Carver, The Orton Family Foundation

  click to see enlargement
A map of Steamboat Springs shown at a public presentation.

"Place-based education" is a popular concept grounded in the theory that if children are taught their lessons in a form and manner that incorporates relevant local issues and reflects local values, not only is the educational experience enhanced but it also fosters youths' commitment to their community. In other words, tying learning to locale may help keep kids at home or entice them to return with degrees in hand--thereby counteracting the youthful exodus that has been rapidly draining the continuity and character from rural communities throughout the country.

Steamboat Springs is a small northwest Colorado mountain town in the Yampa River Valley and a world-class ski resort steeped in rich ranching history and character. The town has grown 49 percent in the last 10 years and yet, upon graduation, many of the local high school's best and brightest students leave, never to return. Community educators in Steamboat Springs, like many of their counterparts throughout rural America, look for ways to keep their kids interested in their communities.

The Orton Family Foundation, an Esri Business Partner and nonprofit organization that was founded in 1995 to help citizens of rural America define the future, shape the growth, and preserve the heritage of their communities, has tackled this problem head-on. Foundation philosophy embraces the need for building technological capacity at the local level to bridge the widening gap between rural and urban schoolchildren. Three years ago, the foundation created a program in Steamboat Springs called the Community Mapping Program (CMP)--Making Community Connections. Fundamentally a place-based educational model, the community orientation of this program is turbo-charged by training in GIS and GPS mapping skills to advance technological literacy among school children.

Through the creation of partnerships between local schools and community organizations, and through training teachers and students in GIS and GPS mapping skills for use in the evaluation process, each issue-based project is designed to produce something of demonstrable and lasting value to the community. All CMP projects culminate in public presentations of the students' work to stakeholders, parents, educators, and decision makers.

GIS mapping technology is the hook that blends the past and present of a place with its future, exciting the students and providing a powerful incentive to participate. (Photo courtesy of Orton Family Foundation.)

"Engaging teachers and students in issues of significance to their community acts as a catalyst for learning and an incentive for community involvement at an early age," says CMP Program Manager Connie Knapp. "Using GIS mapping technology is the 'hook' that blends the past and present of a place with its future. We find that the use of technology--and particularly this mapping technology--excites the student and provides a powerful incentive to participate."

Teachers are trained in how to design and conduct a community mapping project in a series of summer workshops, including a week of specialized Esri-certified GIS classes. After completion of the course, a copy of ArcView is supplied to each teacher for use in his or her school. If ArcView already exists on a school computer, the teacher can take any Esri extension to the software back to the classroom.

A Road Map for Community Mapping

Esri certified K-12 Specialist David Smith and CMP Project Coordinator Elizabeth Matlack have developed a "road map" of ArcView lessons for specific application to community mapping projects, embedding GIS and GPS training holistically into the workshop program. Smith and Matlack selected a set of individual ArcView lessons tailored specifically to the needs of a community mapping project. Teachers who are carrying out a project in their classroom can thus navigate selectively through Esri's lesson program as one would traverse a state with the help of a map.

"The ArcView road map is a great starting point for teachers," says Matlack. "We give them the tools they need to be successful without totally overwhelming them with the technology."

Essential to the success of the program, teachers are encouraged to attend a three-day session on project management and assessment techniques (most of the projects will take a full academic year to complete). Special attention has been paid to meeting state-mandated curriculum content standards. These workshops enable educators in a variety of disciplines to cross-fertilize field study with classroom work, curricular requirements with community needs, and technical training with practical applications. The CMP slate of training also includes a GIS Summer Day Camp for students.

Compiling Data on "Rabbit Ears"

This year, with the help of their teacher, Marian "Sam" Marti, students from Steamboat Springs High School arranged with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) to obtain a copy of accident data along a 22-mile stretch of U.S. Highway 40 called Rabbit Ears Pass. Rabbit Ears is the entrance to the Yampa Valley and lies at an elevation of 9,650 feet above sea level. Heavily traveled, it is noted for its scenic vistas, steep drop-offs, and icy curves. One community member encouraging the project had lost his wife on the pass.

Students traveled over the road with GPS units and digital cameras, mapping exact accident locations and photographing the road in both directions at each site. All of this data was added to the database obtained from CDOT to create a map for emergency service providers and the transportation department of potentially hazardous stretches of the roadway.

"Gathering data outside a traditional classroom setting gave my students a new appreciation for what they learned in class," Marti reports. "The students gained a true understanding of the potential risks associated with driving in an unsafe manner and also got to know the officers of the Colorado Highway Patrol and the Routt County Sheriff's Department."

Using ArcView software, the students presented their findings to CDOT, the State Patrol, the Routt County Commissioners, the Sheriff's Department, and the ambulance service. As a result of their work, ambulances may be equipped this year with in-vehicle GPS units and other technology to more efficiently and accurately capture accident data in the future. An evaluation of the highway may also yield improvements to problem areas for visibility, tight curves, and snow removal.

Spreading the Word

Plans are currently under way to expand the CMP beyond this valley and the borders of Colorado. A serious effort is taking shape in central Texas. Inquiries about expansion have also come from Maine, New Hampshire, and Montana.

Knapp concludes: "We believe this program provides meaningful, exciting learning experiences to the students; allows teachers to satisfy educational standards in a new and creative way; and gives something of value back to the community. This program also enables our youth to gain vital technical skills and play an active and important role in their communities."

For more information about the Community Mapping Program--Making Community Connections, contact Candace Carver, The Orton Family Foundation (e-mail:, tel.: 970-879-2126), or visit

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