The ESRI Conferences: A GIS Journey Toward Citizen Science

By Bonnie Bracey Sutton

My friend Charlie Fitzpatrick and I attended a national summer workshop long ago. We were introduced to the rudiments of GIS (geographic information system). Years later, I attended one day of his conference. Charlie is now the education director for ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc.). The day I went  was map day. I love maps and charts and geography books and citizen science. Some of the maps were on tiles and so beautiful.

A favorite starting point with students is My Wonderful World. This site is a great place to start to learn the GIS. There is also the teacher resource page of the National Geographic.

I never attended the whole conference before this year. At the time I was taking a super computing (SC) workshop and using GIS. But I had no idea of all of  the creative and innovative ways in which it is used today. A look at ESRI is all you need to know about GIS. I could make a simple definition, but I like the ESRI definition because it is all inclusive.

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Last summer we worked with inner city kids on several projects at the Joint Education Facilities, Inc., in Washington, DC. It is located in Southeast Washington and is the only neighborhood high performance computing center in the US. The kids came on Saturdays in the summer to learn GIS and then to complete projects in the GIS technology program. We used GIS to solve problems in the social sciences.

Our topics were :

  • Environmental Racism
  • The History of Washington, DC — as a capitol newly emerged 1789, then during the period of the Civil War, and then after the war
  • The development of the Metro System
  • The history of Anacostia

Dr. Jesse Bemley is the director of the center. Vic Sutton and I worked with him and the students, and Mike Bijou was our assistant. Mike has won a scholarship for work he did in GIS this year and plans to attend the SC conference in Salt Lake City to further his knowledge.

We were grateful to ESRI for the contributions they made to the center. So we decided to attend the ESRI Conference in San Diego.

It was fascinating. First, we went to the Education Conference. I met and was reunited with people I knew from the National Geographic Society and the geographic alliances. The geographic alliances support, within a state or territory, people teaching geography.

The Education Conference was like most educational conferences. It was good.

Many people were working internationally with ESRI and shared their projects. I particularly liked the presentation on an open source program that is used internationally — Ushahidi.  The person presenting it was Juliana Rotich. The example of how it was used and the Guardian News, which feted the presenter, were quite interesting. She is from Kenya, but they use the project in many ways around the world. It was especially helpful after the earthquake in Haiti.

Another presentation I loved in the education section linked up with an experience I had in Earthwatch. I had helped with turtle hatching in Saint Martin’s on a summer two week excursion. An ESRI project mapped a turtle’s journey and migration. I knew the ins and outs of turtle hatching, but I knew nothing about the journeys of its lifetime. I thought of the experience of being in the field and knowing the process and finally knowing the geography of the turtle’s journey.

Some teachers from New Orleans and students mapped the plants and animals of an area that had been flooded to see regrowth after Katrina.

There was a huge contingent of 4-H students who came to learn about ESRI and to participate in the conference. Land grant universities work in some states with high schools and help them to integrate it into STEM studies. The students were excited to be in California and to hear the presentations of the other educators. 4-H has a SET (Science, Engineering and Technology) program, which is an extension of their programs for schools. It is like a college-high school collaboration.

We had an Academic GIS Program Fair, where we learned about educational applications, and a UC Map Gallery Reception. I was expecting to learn most of what would excite me in the education portion of the conference. But the main conference was yet to come. I heard the buzz of excitement, but for me, when they said it would be an all day plenary, I thought, Well, all day? What could be so exciting, and why would anyone want to see anything all day?

The day came, and the plenary was so exquisite I don’t know how to share it with you. I have pictures, and there is a video of most of it. Shock and awe is the only thing I can think of in describing the events of the day. Each time I saw a project that amazed me, I found another that was even more awesome. I learned a lot about new ways to use ArcGIS and that there will be an ArcGIS Online. To my surprise, several students from Arlington, where I spent my career, presented, to the huge audience, projects similar to the ones that were done in Washington, DC. The students in Virginia collaborated with a professor from George Mason University, and they were excellent in their presentation.

There were paper sessions and SIG session and a huge exhibit in the Sails Pavilion.

The map day was just as exciting to me. The exhibition space was huge, and there was a diversity of projects: military, transportation, conservation, ecology. I can’t begin to describe the variety of representations, and by the way there were many workshops, hands on workshops of new products and mentored interfaces for the use of GIS. There was lots of food and lots of groups of people displaying extraordinary maps. We were to help select the best of the maps.

But I digressed and went to the book store to load up on more books about mapping.

That is because in the education conference we had a similar offering of map galleries specific to education from the AAG (American Association of Geographers) and the National Geographic, and we got to take pictures as if we were geographers on a mission. What fun! So my eye was on new books, new learning, and new ways of working.

This conference experience strengthened my desire to help broaden engagement for minorities in this field, to expose them to the wide variety of applications and people sharing ideas: the police, federal government, conservationists. Citizen science is my goal. These are the ways to bring new technologies into education.

I hugged Charlie and was ashamed that I had taken so long to finally join the ESRI educators.

I hope to attend again next year with students.

2 Responses

  1. […] By Bonnie Bracey Sutton My friend Charlie Fitzpatrick and I attended a national summer workshop long ago. We were introduced to the rudiments of GIS (geographic information system). Years later, I attended one day of his …  […]

  2. Sorry for the delay here. You can find videos from the kids in the Monday plenary here:
    Mid-morning Session
    1= 21:40-26:35
    2= 43:50-47:00
    3= 61:08-65:30
    The whole day, of course, shows how GIS is helping people build, enhance, support, conserve, and educate our world, in a thousand ways. We have lots of videos online, but the conference shows the latest examples of real use — what’s happening in everyday world right now, here in our communities and around the planet.
    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

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