ArcNews Online

Winter 2005/2006

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"The learning is exponential!"

Science Instructor Mark Ericson At the Santa Fe Indian School

GIS HeroThis article is the first in a series honoring individuals who have made a difference in the world by applying a GIS solution to challenges or needs within their communities. Since these unique individuals have been selected for their innovations or special achievements in a particular field, the series is appropriately named GIS Heroes. The first honoree, Mark G. Ericson, works in the field of education.

Over its 110-year history, the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS) has evolved from a federally run school to becoming, in the 1970s, the nation's first Indian-run school for Native Americans. Today owned and operated by the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico, the middle school and high school accommodate both day and boarding students from tribes all over New Mexico. Appropriate for its Native American student population, the school offers coursework in Native American history but also strives to prepare students with technical skills they need in the modern world.

Not only are the students at SFIS learning computer skills and scientific research concepts in the process, but they are also learning how to communicate and work with professionals and elders in their tribal communities. This program, called Community Based Education Model (CBEM), is an innovative approach that seeks to motivate and strengthen learning by involving students in real world issues that require math and science skills. CBEM also seeks, through community involvement, to motivate students to continue their educations and return to their communities to work.

Mark EricsonWhen SFIS science instructor Mark G. Ericson helped design SFIS's first CBEM curriculum in 1996, he already had almost a decade of experience teaching at SFIS, so he had a good understanding of local education and community issues. He is also the catalyst for using GIS to bring his students and their communities together. For the past five years, under Ericson's instruction, SFIS students have been using GIS skills to participate in and contribute to environmental and water management programs in their communities.

"I was looking for something that could be used as a foundation to create an expandable base that students could add to based upon their work in the community," says Ericson. "The use of GIS has been the technological core." He and other CBEM curriculum developers worked with community members as equal partners to select relevant projects. Since many issues were based on the environment, Ericson investigated combining computers and geography as a way to use the 24-computer laboratory that Intel Corporation had provided for CBEM. Program funding came from the U.S. Department of Energy. Through contact with local agencies involved in land management, Ericson heard about ArcView software and started teaching himself how to use it for classroom instruction; later, he would go to Esri headquarters in Redlands for more training.

  click to enlarge

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Top and bottom: CBEM students use GIS and hydrologic modeling to visualize the extent of the watersheds that feed their reservations.

Ericson's course teaches students GIS software skills to use in community projects. Over the past seven years, CBEM students have used GIS to map back roads and tribal land boundaries. They have participated in wetlands restoration projects, ground and surface water monitoring, and longitudinal aquatic habitat assessments. They use U.S. Geological Survey data on their reservations and watersheds and digital elevation models to create a master map with the ArcGIS Spatial Analyst extension. Their master map provides a base for further learning such as using ArcView software's hydrologic modeling extension to derive stream channels and watershed basin flows. In the process, they have learned skills that help them continue their educations or find jobs.

"When students wade through a stream trying to get a clear GPS signal to map study area boundaries, the learning is substantial; when the data is then realized in a multidimensional mapping database, the learning is exponential," says Ericson.

He adds that students also discover new things about themselves, such as their ability to understand and apply technical concepts, communicate these ideas to others in a public setting, and contribute as citizens to their communities. As a result, more than half of the approximately 200 students who have participated in CBEM continue in further education and community work related to issues studied during their coursework.

"Mark's use of GIS has given the CBEM students the opportunity to learn in high school at the highest level in terms of computers and technology," says CBEM community liaison Matthew S. Pecos. "The communities get the direct benefit of the skills and knowledge these students have acquired."

"The kids are proud of what they can do, they are lifting their heads up high because they know they have a skill that many other people do not have, and they have progressed in other areas because of that," says Theresa Chavez, past CBEM coordinator and currently SFIS middle school coordinator. Many students have worked summer jobs doing community GIS projects such as mapping utility manholes and georeferencing house addresses.

As a measure of the school's success, in 1987 the United States Department of Education listed the school as one of 270 outstanding secondary schools in America. Of the 70 to 90 students graduating each year, about 90 percent of them plan to go on to attend postsecondary schools.

For more information, contact Mark G. Ericson (e-mail:

For more information on, or to suggest a candidate for, the GIS Heroes series, contact Susan Harp (e-mail:

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