In an ever changing technology-based society, Geographic Information Systems has gone from being a scientific term used by field experts, to an integral part of our everyday lives. From following directions on a cellphone to mapping archeological sites in the Grand Canyon, the use of GIS is more prevalent than ever.

Northern Arizona University’s Center for Science Teaching and Learning and Geospatial Research and Information Lab is ahead of the GIS technology trend and recently received a Special Achievement award for educating Arizona students from K-12 to the university level.

GIS is used to run complex analyses on our earth’s surface to solve real-world problems, like how to predict landslides or what might happen in a flood. Each of a multitude of layers represents specific data such as elevation, topography and demographic information.

Grade school students are now using this mapping system in the classroom to tackle complex community problems like mapping energy use and investigating erosion issues. This is in large-part because NAU is bridging the gap of this complex science by training K-12 teachers on using GIS with students.

Lori Ann Rubino-Hare, a professional development coordinator at NAU, said students of all ages can benefit from the center’s method of teaching. “Students who might not be interested in traditional science classes begin to engage when given opportunities to explore spatial data in a GIS,” she said. “They look for patterns, make predictions and communicate their ideas using maps which can be shared easily online.”

In 2009, NAU was awarded a grant by the National Science Foundation and Science Foundation of Arizona to expand the Power of Data Project. This three-legged model, which helps teachers integrate geospatial technologies into existing courses, combines three different areas of expertise. A teaching specialist, a content specialist and a field expert work in collaboration to create a teaching model that has proven to be successful both inside and outside the classroom.

“Many of the Power of Data participants partnered with community agencies,” Rubino-Hare explained. “Students explored local issues and proposed solutions to authentic audiences. It’s an even more powerful learning opportunity when the students collect the data themselves.”

Rubino-Hare, Mark F. Manone, assistant professor of practice in Geography and James Sample, professor in the School of Earth Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, make up the three experts of the GIS team at NAU.

“We support one another; we don’t all need to know all the content, pedagogy or technology. We can’t all be experts in everything, so we join forces,” Rubino-Hare says. “This results in a powerful team that can accomplish so much more than we could if we worked individually.”

Through the state site license managed by GRAIL, NAU is able to share its GIS studies, Power of Data Project and mapping software with all Arizona schools, increasing interest in STEM fields as the university continues to help map and model our world.