Samford University The BelltowerJuly 2004

Faculty Bring In-Demand Technology To Classroom

“…‘Those nebulous people of history, be they Greek, Roman or your great-grandparents, did not live in a vacuum or on page 243 of a textbook, but in a real place where it even rained sometimes…’”

Some explanation is in order for those of us who missed the U.S. Department of Labor’s recent finding that “geotechnology” is among the top three most important and rapidly growing professional fields. Geotechnology, commonly encountered as Geographic Information Systems [GIS], merges cartography, geography, and computer and satellite technologies to create a tool with application in most any profession.

Need a system that can identify and track the spikes in drug prescriptions that might indicate a bioterror attack? Want a sophisticated series of maps and overlays that will help predict how the inhabitants of a particular region will vote or shop? Want a graphic representation of how language and religion spread in the ancient Near East? By creating maps enhanced by layers of specific information limited only by the mapmaker’s imagination, geotechnology is likely to provide at least some solutions to each of these problems. Thanks to a project conceived in Samford’s geography department, Samford faculty are now applying geotechnology to problems in their respective academic fields and, most importantly, bringing students along for the ride.

The Academic Excellence and Geographic Information Systems [AEGIS] project, developed and directed by Samford Geography professor Max Baber and supported by a $195,000 grant from the National Science Foundation's Course, Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement program, is teaching nontechnical faculty how to use GIS and assisting them in the development of discipline-specific GIS modules suitable for use in their introductory level courses. According to Baber, the project’s goal is to help faculty help students understand and integrate the technology into their studies and careers. “The broader impacts of this project are far-reaching,” Baber said. “The integration of introductory GIS into a diverse array of Arts and Sciences courses is leading to further development of GIS modules for advanced courses, and is enhancing student research skills by providing students with multiple opportunities to engage in spatial data acquisition and analysis activities.”

The three-year AEGIS project, now in its second year, has just graduated its second and final group of seven faculty participants. The faculty spent a week in June learning how to use GIS, and could be seen wandering the quad in clusters, hunched over handheld global positioning system [GPS] receivers. The receivers, originally developed for military and nautical use but now found everywhere from car dashboards to watches, work with satellites to provide the precise geographic coordinates that are at the heart of GIS. They can record the location of a pot sherd, house or spider as well as help soldiers navigate or direct artillery fire. The faculty learning how to use the devices said they plan to apply the technology to a surprising variety of classroom projects, from plotting the flora and fauna of Shades Creek to tracking the spread of Roman architecture in ancient Britain.

Although geotechnology may not be a headline grabber, its practical value in both career and classroom is apparent to the faculty who volunteered to participate in the AEGIS project. Professor Ron Jenkins and his colleagues in Samford’s Biology department are especially interested in the technology. “GIS and GPS can be big pluses in conducting environmental research,” Jenkins said. “Being able to map distributions of animals can give the biologist a better understanding of the animals and their biological roles.” Jenkins said Samford biology students will use GIS in their study of the flora and fauna of Shades Creek, which runs along Lakeshore Drive in front of Samford, and has served as an outdoor Samford biology lab for many years.

Professors Shannon Flynt and Doug Clapp, representing two-thirds of the Classics Department, see applications for GIS in even the most traditional of the liberal arts. They plan to develop student research projects that will inform a complex series of teaching maps of ancient Greece, and Flynt plans to apply the technology to her own archaeological research of the Roman military frontiers of Europe and Britain.

"Those nebulous people of history, be they Greek, Roman or your great-grandparents, did not live in a vacuum or on page 243 of a textbook, but in a real place where it even rained sometimes,” said Clapp. “The AEGIS project can help those of us who introduce students to their cultural roots through Cultural Perspectives or through Greek and Roman History by providing a geographical anchor for the printed page that is our primary teaching tool.”

Having completed their introduction to the growing field of geotechnology, the 14 AEGIS project participants now face the challenge of turning ideas into real GIS projects that will benefit their disciplines and give their students intellectually rewarding, not to mention highly marketable, skills.

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