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Winter 2009/2010

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Texas Students Use GIS to Track H1N1 Flu


  • Students created a basemap that joined the attribute table and spreadsheet by matching county names.
  • Visualizing data on a map helped students analyze the data, promoting higher-level thinking skills.
  • The students used their GIS skills to create a visual element relevant and meaningful to all of western Texas.

Last April, when the spread of H1N1 (swine) flu began, students in Texas watched with a vested interest. The Texas Education Agency made recommendations to reschedule or cancel area and state-level competitions in an effort to limit student travel and minimize contact. With events approaching, like prom, spring concerts, and even graduation ceremonies, students waited as local school districts made careful decisions. Some districts halted student travel and others canceled school classes for a period of weeks.

  click to enlarge
Students join flu data from a spreadsheet to the Texas counties attribute table to symbolize the case counts with graduated colors. In addition, data containing major highways, large cities, and locations of H1N1 flu deaths were layered.

Lubbock Independent School District GIS teacher Penny Carpenter knew GIS tools would be used to monitor and inform the public of the flu's pandemic potential, and she saw a unique opportunity for her students. Philosophically, Carpenter motivates students with relevant real-world topics, and the reality of H1N1 flu had certainly captured her students' attention. They found maps of countries and states with confirmed flu cases but none of Texas counties. Because the outbreak originated in Mexico, students looked to the border towns for reported infections, and that is when geographic inquiry began: Where were the counties in Texas with confirmed H1N1 flu cases?

The Texas Department of Health's Web site posted a confirmed case count by county and provided daily updates. Students created a list of Texas counties in a spreadsheet and entered the data of confirmed cases. Next, students used the school's ArcGIS Desktop ArcMap application to create a basemap of Texas counties. They joined the map's attribute table to the spreadsheet data by matching county names. After discussing appropriate breaks for the data range, the quantities of confirmed cases were mapped using graduated colors.

During the initial analysis, students discovered the darkest colors, representing the highest number of confirmed cases, appeared in the heavily populated areas, not the border counties. They discussed common aspects these areas shared that could explain the flu's spread. In the GIS, students added a layer of roadways and airports for comparison. Although each major area had a large airport, all areas were connected with major highways. This analysis supported the theory that travel by car was more likely to explain and continue the spread.

Students continued to update the data over the next several days and watched the flu spread along the roadways. Confirmed cases colored counties on the map moving west on Interstate 20, the major highway that connects Lubbock to the rest of the state via Highway 84. On the last day of school, the first confirmed case for Lubbock County was announced. The local television station broke the story and featured the work of Carpenter's students. Their GIS skills created a visual element that was relevant and meaningful to all of western Texas.

KCBD TV reporter Ann Wyatt films Tyler Funk as he uses ArcGIS Desktop to animate the spread of H1N1 flu in Texas counties.

Student Tyler Funk explains, "I'm just in awe that I can build the maps in GIS to help other people understand the data and how it affects them." Funk now contemplates areas of study that will develop his ability to construct datasets and analyze them through graphic representation. Carpenter believes she teaches more than building maps. "When students can visualize and see the data on a map, they begin to analyze, and this promotes higher-level thinking skills," she says.

More Information

For more information, contact Penny Carpenter, GIS teacher, Byron Martin Advanced Technology Center, Lubbock Independent School District (tel.: 806-773-6918, e-mail:

About the Program

Penny Carpenter teaches Geographic Information Systems and Global Positioning Systems (GIS/GPS), an innovative course she proposed that was approved by the Texas Education Agency. It is one of many skill-based or career and technology education courses offered at her campus, the Byron Martin Advanced Technology Center (ATC). Courses are available at the ATC to all students from the four high schools within the Lubbock Independent School District. These weighted credit electives require no special application process, and many allow students to earn technical preparation or dual college credit. These courses promote career skills, and some provide opportunities for students to earn industry-recognized certifications. Career and technology education courses like GIS/GPS provide students with a pathway to the workforce and/or higher education.

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