Diversity of Maps: GIS Outreach Initiative

Graduate students Mimi Thomas and Rabby Yasin demonstrate the virtual reality sandbox

Graduate students Mimi Thomas and Rabby Yasin demonstrate the virtual reality sandbox

Michael Camponovo and Nathan McKinney joined the staff of the Department of Geography in August 2016 for one reason: to build the geographic information system (GIS) program.

“Our goal is to share the work we do so people know geography is a discipline you can study, get a very satisfying, well-paying job in, and have lots of fun in the process,” says Camponovo, GIS outreach coordinator.

A large part of their outreach is educating K-12 teachers about the opportunity for kids to major in geography.

“The problem we run into is that for a whole variety of reasons, a lot of young people in Tennessee are not exposed to geography as a viable career path,” Camponovo says.

In November 2016, Derek Alderman, head of the Department of Geography, and Kurt Butefish, coordinator of the Tennessee Geographic Alliance, wrote an opinion editorial in the Knoxville News Sentinel about the importance of geography in state social studies curriculum.

“Well beyond the memorizing of the names of capitals and rivers, studying geography is about realizing the power of ‘where’ and understanding the consequences that location, place, landscape, and environment have within our lives,” they wrote. “Geography, when taught properly, is about preparing global citizens to understand how their existence connects with and is interdependent on people and places in other regions.”

Often students take a science elective and realize they love geography, which is how Camponovo and McKinney became hooked on maps. Both discovered they loved GIS when they took science electives as undergraduates. They spend their time now helping students at all education levels discover the wonders of GIS.

One demonstration that is particularly engaging for students is the virtual reality sandbox, which helps explain landforms, erosion, and the slow formation of the Grand Canyon over time. Students move the sand around in the sandbox, a camera measures the distance from the sand to the camera, and projects contour lines on the sand using colors to show the difference in elevation. Low areas are lit in green and red represents the highest elevation.

“People’s eyes light up,” Camponovo says. “Kids of all ages love to use the sandbox.”

The growing interest in GIS applies to several areas, including improved communications, better record keeping, and cost savings from greater efficiency applied to fleet movements or traffic patterns.

“GIS is the framework that makes a lot of location-based services run, such as the GPS locator on your smartphone,” says McKinney, GIS lab manager

GIS and geospatial work are also applied to natural hazard and response mitigation, such as the Gatlinburg fires. Students training to be wildland firefighters use on-site GIS analysis to provide data to firefighters in the field on everything from fire boundaries and work crew locations to water access and cleared areas.

A partnership with the Office of Sustainability and Facility Services on campus gets students out of the lab and experiencing the benefits of GIS first-hand by using GPS to collect data about water bottle filling stations, bike racks, and recycling locations. The students enter the coordinates into a database that Facility Services use each year in a report to the university.

Students, professors, and researchers across campus call on Camponovo, McKinney, and others in the Department of Geography whenever they need assistance with location services, mapping, or any other GIS technology.

“There’s an application for GIS in just about every discipline,” Camponovo says. “Basically it boils down to this – everyone is a geographer; they just don’t know it yet.”