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Enhancing Local Water Quality Studies with Geographical Information Systems

Tino Johansson, from the Department of Geography at the University of Helsinki, Finland is the project manager of GISAS project (Geographical Information Systems Applications for Schools). He briefly explains the aims, activities and outputs of the project which involves many European schools.

GISAS intends to introduce Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to several secondary and upper secondary schools in eight European countries.

In the partner schools, GIS is used as a tool to enhance the studies of local river water quality by uploading the results of biological and chemical water quality analyses into a GIS database, where these findings can be overlaid with different environmental data for inquiry purposes. The water quality sample sites are located into geographic coordinate systems with Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers allowing those sites to be visualized on the map platform together with other coordinate located environmental data.

Water quality is just one example of the topics which can be studied with GIS at schools. Water quality can be studied in geography classes and water quality also provides many dimensions for environmental education. The project started by linking the use of GIS with a topic, that is already familiar to the schools. Later the schools may extend the use of the GIS tool for studying traffic, vegetation, urban structures, historical places or some other man-made or natural phenomena from local to global level.
The objectives of the project with schools are to:
- Introduce GIS into European secondary and upper secondary schools;
- Create a model of how to incorporate GIS into geography and environmental education at these educational levels;
- Use GIS as a tool to enhance the study of local water quality in Europe;
- Organize virtual in-service teacher training on GIS for the partner school teachers;
- Create educational materials, exercises and a web-based learning environment for teachers and their students;
- Test and develop these outputs in real-classroom situations with the help of partner school teachers;
- Conduct research on the ways how GIS is used in secondary and upper secondary school education;
- Develop and support international cooperation among teachers and students in a web-based learning environment.

The partner schools use ArcView 8.3. GIS software for creating, visualizing and analysing the data collected on local water quality. They analyse the water quality of local rivers twice a year with the biological analysis method Biotic Index at Secondary Education level (BISEL) and with chemical water analysis tool kits. Each water analysis site is located with GPS receivers and visualized on basic maps with GIS software. The results of the water analysis are typed into attribute data tables where each row represents one map object, namely the water analysis sites visualized as points. The attribute data table contains columns where the variables from the analysis are typed. The students are able to create new columns and rows if the number of water analysis sites increases or if new variables are studied.

 Mr. György Borián explains the functions of ArcView 8.3. software to students in Barcs, Hungary. (Photo: Zoltán Palotai 2005).

In most partner schools, the water quality analysis has shown variation in water quality in different analysis sites. The next question in inquiry-based learning is to ask why there are differences between the analysis sites along the same river. The students will work in small groups and start using the functions of the GIS software to find answers to this question. They collect more environmental data from the local area and upload it into the GIS database as separate layers. They create databases on land use, wildlife habitats, pollutants, soil and so on. Then they overlay two or more layers and use the buffer tools to find out which factors are located within a certain radius from the analysis sites. They can continue the inquiry by making significant factors visible and the insignificant environmental factors invisible. As a result, they may see the location and attributes of the significant factors and are able to discuss which one has the biggest effect on the water quality there. At the end, the students will produce a thematic map with the GIS software to document their findings for the whole class.

In-service teacher training
The GISAS project started to provide in-service teacher training in the beginning of the project. The partner school-teachers received hands on training on GIS software during the project meetings and carried out monthly eLearning tasks using BSCW groupware. The eLearning tasks were based on the illustrated user manuals, which explained the activities step-by-step for the teachers. Each eLearning task produced a new database for the project and these databases were sent to the project manager for review. The teachers were learning to use the GIS software with these exercises and received manuals, which they can use for carrying out the same exercises in the classroom with their students.

The interactive web-based atlas
Local GIS databases based on students’ observations and analyses will contain eight map layers. These databases are visualised with GIS software at schools and with an interactive web-based atlas available for all partners with a web browser. The web-based atlas allows the partners to share their data with the other schools and provides materials from eight countries for inquiry-based learning. The learning activities with the web-based atlas do not only focus on geography and environmental education but the additional contents, such as digital photographs and texts, linked with map objects make it possible to study other cultures and languages as well.

About GIS
GIS are modern tools for creating, managing, analysing and visualizing spatial information of any kind. The heart of these systems is software, which typically links the table-like attribute databases with a digital map. The user can define the visibility and scale of each map layer on the platform as well as the visual style (symbols, colours and sizes) of map objects on each layer. The possibility to attach attribute data to every map object and to overlay many layers at once allows the user to make queries on the basis of the location or attributes of these spatially-located objects. Queries may reveal relationships and dependencies between certain map elements and provide a tool for inquiry-based learning.


For more information, visit the GISAS website: http://www.edu.fi/gisas

You can also find additional information about GISAS and other EU science education projects on the Xplora portal: http://www.xplora.org/ww/en/pub/xplora/eu_projects_new.htm

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