geographic information systems (GIS) in civic ed

Yesterday was our last class at the high school for this academic year. We brought along some maps (based on data that the students had collected) that showed aspects of the community that may affect young residents’ health. In particular, the maps show that kids who walk are clustered in certain areas; thus some neighborhoods may be built in ways that are friendly to pedestrians. That would be an important finding, because we know that walking reduces obesity, and obesity is a big health problem. Our students are alert to possible causes of error (the small sample, selection bias, hidden causes, etc). We would have to do a lot more research before we could draw any rigorous conclusions.

Today I took an excellent intermediate-level class on GIS software and became increasingly excited about what we can do with the class when we resume next fall. We’ll certainly ask them to collect more data about their fellow students’ behavior and locals assets such as stores and parks.

It’s exciting to address an issue (obesity) that’s usually seen in strictly pyschological terms–as a matter of body-image and will-power–and to look instead for geographical causes. Active citizens can potentially change the local landscape and zoning laws, whereas body-image and eating habits are very hard to change. Meanwhile, GIS software is making it possible for kids who don’t have very advanced skills to understand their environment in tremendously powerful ways.