Students’ Eye In The Sky

December 1, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Sixth-grade students at Riverside Middle School are getting a different view of the neighborhood businesses they pass by every day.

In a project that brings together the middle school, Grand Valley State University and local businesses, the students are using geographic information system, or GIS, cameras to help map the local businesses and create a brochure that will market them to the public.

The Riverside students used the GIS cameras to determine the location of businesses in the Cheshire Business District on the northeast side of Grand Rapids, and the information was then uploaded to computer software that overlays the information on a census map. GVSU students will use the information and software to create an easily updateable and printable brochure to promote the local businesses.

“It’s just been an introduction to this technology,” said Ruth Kelly, the sixth-grade social studies teacher behind the project.

Kelly said the students have learned about the tools of the technology, and have also learned about geocaching, a kind of outdoor treasure hunt using the geographic information system. The students also learned about satellites, latitude, longitude, and the military origins of the geographic information system.

In addition to the technical experience, students also had a chance to interview local business owners Mike Koelzer of Kay Pharmacy and Bob Kingma of Kingma’s Produce. The two men discussed their businesses and job and presentation skills for the students to remember when they apply for their first jobs.

Kelly said she believed the experience was good both for the business owners, who got a chance to interact positively with the students, and for the students, who got a chance to understand the work and dedication behind owning a business.

“There’s nothing like face-to-face personal contact to help them respect each other,” Kelly said.

Koelzer said he thought the experience was a good way of helping students see there is a real person behind the business, which will help deter crime and vandalism. It may also inspire them to go into business themselves if that is where their interests lie.

“I think it gives people a goal to see there are successful businesses run by average Joes in the community. With a little luck and elbow grease, you can have a business and so on,” he said.

The project also gives meaning to the students’ work, Koelzer said.

“I think it’s a real neat thing to get the kids this early involved in ‘real life.’ Sometimes these kids are studying science and math and they say, ‘Why does it make a difference?’ By doing this, they can see the end result instead of just thinking ‘boring school’ or ‘boring homework,’” he said.

Susan Bladey, program manager with the Creston Corridor Initiative, has partnered with Kelly on the project and agrees that the project has been a good way to connect the students with the local businesses.

“It helps to bridge that gap between the children that walk through the area every day and the business owners that own the businesses every day,” she said.

Edwin Joseph, an associate professor of geography at GVSU, partnered with Kelly to help her students with the project. Joseph said it has given his Introduction to Geographic Information Systems students experience in the field and an opportunity to work in the community as part of his class’s service learning requirement.

“We realized we all needed something,” he said of himself, Kelly and Bladey. “It’s part of an ongoing project that’s usable by everyone in the community.”

Joseph said everyone involved in the project is an “active partner” learning from the project and from one another.

“We’re getting together and understanding community and trying to learn from each other,” he said.

The Riverside students learned quickly, Joseph said, exceeding his expectations. A poster of their project was displayed during the recent GIS Day at GVSU, showing the students that work they do can affect others, Joseph said.

“I think it’s going to build a lot of confidence with the kids,” he said. “That makes me really, really happy, when I see children can be a part of the whole community building process.”

With the brochure planned to be completed by the end of the year, Kelly and her students will soon start mapping the Creston Business District, as well, with $1,000 from a Grand Rapids Community Foundation grant that helps pay for busing. It is hoped that the project may be expanded to map the businesses around Leonard and Fuller, as well as those in North Park.

Joseph said he hopes to also expand the project to include other teachers and communities, including on an international level. Teachers from Ghana and the Bahamas have already expressed interest.

“The whole project is something I would like to see expanded into several schools with a lot more teachers involved,” he said. “I want to see the university tied with schools and international communities.”

Kelly said the project is a great opportunity for teachers and students.

“I’m hoping it will catch on so that people can avail themselves of this marvelous opportunity with Grand Valley State University,” she said. “It’s been just a really good collaboration.”    

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