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Provost's Update

November 2013

Grant helps EMU faculty revolutionize middle school history and geography lessons

In the classroom of the near future, 8th and 9th grade students won't learn about historical events like the Civil War just by reading a textbook. They'll use Graphic Information Systems (GIS) data mapping and visualization tools to better understand where, how and why the battles took place.

Eastern Michigan University faculty are leading a research project to train middle school teachers how to use advanced geo-spatial technologies and bring these revolutionary teaching tools to their students. Assistant Professor of Geography and Geology Zachary Moore and Professor of Teacher Education Toni Stokes Jones received a $230,000 grant to support their research. The project is funded by the Michigan Department of Education with federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Education's Title II, Part A (3) Improving Teacher Quality Program.

"We want to help improve students' knowledge of history and geography by integrating those fields," says Moore, the project's principal investigator. "History and geography cannot be divorced—they must work in tandem. GIS integrates both disciplines and creates powerful tools that allow teachers to bring historical content to life."

Esri, a technology company based in Redlands, Calif., developed the GIS software. It allows users to create multi-layered maps that display a plethora of data, from topographical and population studies to household income and unemployment rates.

"These maps allow students to see the relationships between and among events and variables," Moore says. "For example, if an 8th grade class is learning about the Battle of Gettysburg, the geography part of the lesson often ends at Gettysburg's location. But to have a complete picture of that battle, students should also learn why the military leaders made certain decisions. Teachers can use GIS to model the topography and display information like the location of towns and resources. Then the students can better understand Robert E. Lee's actions."

Past attempts to introduce GIS technology into the classroom have fallen short, mainly due to the complexity of the software and its high cost. Moore and Stokes Jones are working with simplified and less expensive GIS software called ArcGIS. Esri developed this web-based system for classroom use.

"We're currently training a group of 21 teachers from the River Rouge, Redford Union and Ecorse school districts to manipulate existing ArcGIS maps," Moore says. "They're very engaged and love what they're learning. Some have already introduced ArcGIS to their students. Right now, we're building the ArcGIS databases based on teacher surveys. In the winter, the teachers will find the data they need to build their own databases."

Moore says this revolutionary approach to teaching geography and history together may serve as a model for other schools and universities.

"There's almost no limit to the kind of maps you can develop using this software," he says. "Most historical events can be explained by spatial and temporal means. Our project marries the two in an exciting way that goes far beyond reading about an event in a textbook."

Visit the ArcGIS website to learn more about the ArcGIS system and view galleries of sample maps.