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Carleton College Geology Class Learns GIS Techniques by Tackling Community Issues

March 6, 2000

Mary Savina doesn't believe lectures are the most effective way of teaching her students the practical applications of a computer-based tool called Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Rather, the professor of geology at Carleton College takes a more hands-on approach-her students are using GIS to work on solving community problems, with "real-life consequences."

During winter term, students in Savina's advanced geology seminar titled "Remote Sensing and GIS" have been using GIS to photograph land images, spatially organize maps, and collect data to tackle such community issues as usage and management of trails throughout Carleton's Arboretum, and the appropriate locations for city parks.

Faster than manual methods, GIS allows for the integration of information into a series of maps. With unique spatial visualizations, these maps can
help in examining local community concerns, as well as in uncovering larger global issues such as overpopulation, pollution, and deforestation.
GIS generally is used by scientists, scholars, communities, and governments to analyze events, predict outcomes, and plan strategies.

Kim Hanson, a senior sociology and anthropology major from Bloomington, Minn., is one of a group of students applying the GIS skills they have
learned in Savina's class to issues tied to the city planning process in Northfield. With GIS's mapping techniques, the group has studied the
appropriate distances between residential and business developments and possible locations for new city parks.

The students recently presented their findings to the Northfield Department of Parks and Recreation. According to Savina, Northfield prides itself on its many "open spaces," and having the students' information available will allow the city to make reasonable decisions about where new parks should be located. "It's nice to work on projects that are so immediately applicable," Hanson noted.

Beth Valaas shares Hanson's appreciation for the class projects in Savina's course. "GIS skills can be used in scientific research, or used to solve
community planning problems. Combined with knowledge of computer science, GIS is a very marketable skill," said the junior geology major from
Bellevue, Wash.

For their project, Valaas' group examined trails in Carleton's Arboretum which were moved or reconstructed during recent restoration to the area.
Using GIS, they have mapped the trails and noted their usage. The students' data eventually will be posted on Carleton's GIS web site
(, so that users can download current, detailed maps of the Arboretum's biking, skiing, and running trails.

Last spring, Savina conducted a similar project with her advanced geomorphology seminar. After a severe thunderstorm threatened the local
Spring Creek, students analyzed stream bank erosion and established a long-term monitoring network. The results of that work can be viewed
online at

In June 1999, the class presented its recommendations for bank stabilization to the Carleton Facilities Management and Planning Office and its consulting civil engineer and landscape architect. Their findings helped the College repair the damaged areas with minimal environmental harm.
Dennis Easley, Carleton's superintendent of grounds, called the student presentations thorough and informative and thanked the students "for
bringing it all together."

To Savina, these hands-on projects are not simply about service learning or scientific research. Rather, they embody the teaching philosophy that
students learn best when they understand the concepts, not just the vocabulary.