Matt Dozier: Over the past few months, we have looked at the E and the A in EAST, but as we turn our focus to the S, I need to brag a little bit. The S in EAST stands for Spatial. EAST was one of the early adopters of Spatial Technologies into our educational mission. Why? For one thing, the spatial technologies (GIS, GPS, etc.) relate to everything in the modern world. They have always related to society – just ask the navigators and sailors of the ancient world. It’s only in the immediate past that the tools have developed to a point where they are all at once ubiquitous, intuitive, and robust enough that anyone can use them. These tools are also complex enough that they foster a way of thinking that requires the EAST skills of analysis, creative problem solving and significant power that help to develop and implement solutions to identified problems. I’ve asked very dear friend of EAST to explain this better than I could. Here’s Malcolm Williamson of the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies at the University of Arkansas to talk about Spatial Technologies and their history and capacity in EAST.
Malcolm Williamson: Why does the EAST Initiative incorporate spatial technologies? That’s a good question, and — fortunately for myself — one with several good answers. Let’s begin by going back a few years, to EAST’s very beginning. EAST’s founder, Tim Stephenson, turned his students loose on one of their very first projects, building a footbridge across a creek at Greenbrier High School. Hammers and nails, lumber and saws. Let’s assess this project from a modern EAST perspective. Were the students working for the benefit of others? You bet – the entire school could be proud of their bridge. Were they collaborating and solving problems? Most of the time, I’m sure. Were they using tools that were relevant to their future education and careers? Well, maybe if they were planning on becoming carpenters!
Tim realized that he needed to incorporate more modern tools to make his class relevant to students. Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software was an easy choice, as it would allow students to design and model in 3d space. This tool represented EAST’s initial foray into spatial technologies and made perfect sense: everything we see, use, and do exists in 3d space, and we therefore have a need to model what currently exists, while testing new or proposed objects within that same space. Yet something was still missing. Students needed a tool that would let them start to analyze their surroundings: Why is this here and not there? Where will the water flow? How far away can the tornado siren be heard? Enter Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
It turns out that Tim had been introduced to GIS while still in school himself, as he used it to test his hypothesis that logging activity was causing a decrease in water quality in the Buffalo River. GIS can be used to spatially model our community and other environments in two, and now three, dimensions; it can perform complex spatial analysis to answer questions that are otherwise difficult to address; it can deliver information about our community and environment as 2d maps, sophisticated reports and graphs, and even 3d visualizations. Bringing GIS into the EAST classroom not only gave students snazzy new software to show off, it also provided a tool set that encourages higher-order thinking skills.
One of those higher-order thinking skills is spatial intelligence, one of the seven intelligences defined in Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In a nutshell, it has to do with spatial judgment and the ability to visualize using one’s mind. It is critical to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines; consider Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, which hinged on their ability to visualize the unusual double-helix form. GIS analysis encourages spatial intelligence as students strive to understand spatial relationships and model outcomes.
Today, GIS isn’t the only tool available to analyze our spatial world. There are Building Information Management (BIM) applications, which are very similar to GIS but focus on the “built” environment of buildings and other man-made structures. CAD software companies continue to add spatial analysis functions to their software. Game engines now include technology to sense collisions between objects and even use physics calculations to model the behavior of objects within their game environment (that’s why those explosions look so real!). There will continue to be a stream of new and more powerful spatial technologies for EAST students to discover and explore, even as they ask more difficult questions and pursue more complex problems.
Spatial technologies do indeed fit EAST to an “S” and “T”.Matt Dozier: I couldn’t have said it better myself. Really, I couldn’t have begun to.
Others have caught on to the EAST model of fostering the spatial thinking and technological competence. Two things have happened in the past few years that have made me realize just how important our work is to the people in industries that use and value spatial technologies. The first is that EAST was included in the timeline of the the development of GIS education in the book Learning to Think Spatially by the Committee on the Support for the Thinking Spatially: The Incorporation of Geographic Information Science Across the K-12 Curriculum, Committee on Geography, National Research Council. EAST was included in a continuum that started with sextants and Dr. Snow’s Ghost Map and went on to the development of satellite and aerospace technologies. On the timeline in spot for 1995, the entry is “the EAST program is piloted”. Wow!
The second is an even more humbling recognition. In 2010 the EAST Initiative received a Special Achievement in GIS award from ESRI, the international leader in GIS technology development. Less that one-tenth of one percent of all GIS users receive this award and you cannot apply for this. This recognition is awarded for innovative and important work in developing GIS. Jack Dangermond, the owner of ESRI, told me that EAST is securing the future in GIS education and that our students are making a difference right now and will into the future.
The S in EAST means that we are taking the future by the horns and helping our students and our communities to think and act in incredible ways.