Posted by William Nunnelley on 2003-10-13

Samford University has received a $194,605 grant from the National Science Foundation to introduce Geographic Information Systems (GIS) techniques into introductory courses across its arts and science curriculum.

GIS enables professors and their students to organize data spatially, using computer maps to present information on wide-ranging subjects. Samford professors in history, biology, chemistry and other disciplines are using the technique this fall.

"GIS helps students visualize data more readily," said Dr. James Brown, who uses the technique to help teach the importance of the Vera Cruz-to-Mexico City corridor in the history of Mexico. "About 80 percent of the data stored in computers can be accessed in some form of map format."

A biology professor and students will use GIS to map roads and logging trails in the new Cahaba Wildlife Management Area. Another group is studying water quality and fish distribution in the Shades Creek Watershed. A history class is looking at the block-by-block development of Birmingham since the 1880s. A geography class is exploring global population issues.

"Geo-spatial methods are being applied increasingly across a growing spectrum of professional and academic fields," said Dr. Max Baber of the Samford Geography Department, grant project director. "What's important about this grant is that it is enabling Samford to teach the application of an emerging technology in so many academic areas.

"This is an innovative approach that takes techniques often taught at graduate level at larger state universities and adapts them to lower level courses across the board in arts and sciences. This will improve the quantitative thinking skills of our students as they build geographic databases and analyze spatial relationships, enhancing undergraduate education here."

Through the NSF grant, 14 Samford arts and sciences faculty members are studying ways to use GIS techniques in their introductory courses. Dr. Paul Blanchard, biology professor, is the project training coordinator.

Brown uses a computer screen map to show information about distances, topography, events, travel routes and other physical data. "You can click on the data you want and instantly make it a part of the map," he said.

Some information already exists on GIS computer disks, but other data must be collected and entered. History professor Marjorie Walker's class is looking at old maps of Birmingham which show the makeup of city blocks back to the 1880s.

"The students will be able to enter data and then tell the GIS program to plot comparisons by decades of what these blocks looked like," she said.

The visual benefits of GIS will not replace written work but will accompany it to make it more understandable, said Dr. Walker.

Biology professor Betsy Dobbins is using GIS to illustrate changes in water quality and distribution of fish in the Shades Creek Watershed.

"We can pull out information on things that fluctuate in the creek, such as whether the nitrogen level increases after rainfall," said Dr. Dobbins. Nitrogen from commercial fertilizers can be carried into the creek during rainfall runoff, she said. It causes algae to bloom, but this can hurt fish and other plant life because it uses up the oxygen. Eventually, the algae can take over and stifle other growth.

Students obtained some runoff data from the Jefferson County Storm Water Management Authority. They are adding other data they gather to provide a more complete picture of factors affecting Shades Creek.

Biology professor Robert Stiles and his class are working with the Nature Conservancy, using GIS techniques to map roads and logging trails in and near the Cahaba Wildlife Management Area in Bibb County. Many of the roads are old and in disrepair, causing sediment to run off into the Cahaba during rainfall. With accurate maps, the Conservancy could apply for federal grants to repair roads and lessen harmful runoff.

"The Area was established to protect the Cahaba Lily and Cahaba Shiner and some mussels and snails," said Dr. Stiles. "The Cahaba really is an area of rare aquatic flora and fauna, and this mapping project would be one way to help protect it."

Geography professor Eric Fournier's class uses GIS to explore global population issues as well as AIDS in Africa.


Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. The Wall Street Journal ranks Samford 1st nationally for student engagement and U.S. News & World Report ranks Samford 66th in the nation for best undergraduate teaching and 104th nationally for best value. Samford enrolls 5,683 students from 47 states and 19 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference, and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.