GIS Intern Advocates Spatial Literacy
by MaryAlice Bitts
March 23, 2010
Casey Michalski '10 and James Ciarrocca, GIS specialist, refer to a map of Carlisle in the Dickinson GIS lab. GIS brings mapping technology together with other data to help people problem-solve visually.
How long does it take to walk from Dickinson’s campus to the shops on Pomfret Street? Students who habitually drive around town often can’t say. But what if they could visualize exactly where all the key businesses are, relative to Dickinson? Would they reduce their carbon footprints by walking or cycling to nearby locations?
Casey Michalski ’10 is betting that they would. And this is just the sort of challenge that she says is best met through the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology.
As the second GIS intern at Dickinson College—the first was Katherine Anderson ’11—Michalski serves as a GIS ambassador, spreading word about the value of this cutting-edge tool. Her first challenge? Pinning down a layperson’s definition of GIS.
GIS is a computer-based system that stores, analyzes, manages and presents geographical information such as an entity’s location, position, size and shape and combines it with attribute data, such as descriptions, quantities or qualities.
“GIS allows us to think about problems more broadly in a spatial context and provides us with tools to answer questions such as: Where is something? Why is it there? How is it related to things around it?” explains James Ciarrocca, Dickinson’s first GIS specialist. He notes that the technology is widely used in a spectrum of fields, including public safety, environmental management, urban planning, insurance and banking, government, criminal justice, the military, health care and political analysis. “It allows us to analyze, assess and visualize real-world problems within a spatial framework.”
A GIS-created map of downtown-Carlisle shops and businesses, for example, could include a host of embedded information, including services rendered and goods offered, reviews, sustainable business practices, amount of energy expended en route to the business and much more.
“GIS can play a daily role in almost all aspects of campus activities,” Ciarrocca affirms. “There is perhaps no aspect of life at an academic institution—be it teaching, research or administration—that could not benefit from incorporating some aspect of spatial thinking.”
Happily, ArcGIS, a suite of GIS software products, is available in all public computer labs on campus and in selected classroom labs, and training is available to students, faculty and staff. Potential uses—on campus and beyond—are great.
New directions, new responsibilities
Michalski, an impassioned GIS user who has already tapped the technology to illustrate a point in a term paper, says her interest in GIS was sparked in an introductory course last fall. Fresh from studying at the college’s Norwich, England, program at the University of East Anglia, she searched for something that would help her develop a plan for life after graduation.
“There were so many elements, so many things I was interested in,” she recalls. And when Ciarrocca offered the GIS class a whimsical application of the technology, she was hooked.
“He showed us a map that demonstrated where in the United States people call [carbonated beverages] ‘pop’ and where do they call it ‘soda,’ ” explains Michalski, who hails from Colorado, where “pop” reigns supreme. “You could see the regional divides throughout the country. It’s awesome to get a grasp of what a phenomenon looks like. That [visualization] is the glue that brings the pieces together.”
Inspired, Michalski began to build a data-rich map of downtown Carlisle as a project for her advanced GIS class. It incorporates information she’s learned in her environmental-studies classes and has shifted her career focus—and problem-solving techniques—dramatically. And before she graduates in May, she hopes to encourage fellow Dickinsonians to increase their spatial literacy through GIS use.
“People read in the news about Iran or Afghanistan, but do they know exactly where these countries are? Or how big they are, or what their population is? Do they know how close they are to neighboring states? It’s a responsibility—like sustainability is a responsibility—to know where you are in the world,” she emphasizes.
A visualized future
So, she and her GIS classmates conceived of a motto to inspire Dickinsonians to take on this responsibility: “Engage the World, Spatially.” Michalski plans to emblazon T-shirts with the motto and create informational posters. And she is co-presenting GIS programming as part of the upcoming Earth Week events. Under Ciarrocca’s guidance, she also helps to create GIS projects for various departments, including a crop-planning tool for the College Farm.
The technology has helped the environmental-studies major fulfill a personal mission to spread the word about sustainable practices. For her capstone project, Michalski has partnered with fellow environmental-studies major Curtis Lentz '10 to co-create an educational unit about sustainability that maps out places where meat for Dining Services is produced and shows how far the meat travels to get to the college. “Students can create the map themselves and visualize the impact of their meat diet,” she explains. “It’s easy to tell students, ‘This is your carbon footprint.’ But it’s hard for them to visualize it. This is a good way for students in an introductory environmental-science course to start to think spatially about sustainability.”
As a volunteer tour guide at Dickinson, Michalski hopes to create a map that will show the parts of the world represented by the Dickinson student body, with embedded information about population density, economic status, topography and other aspects of the home countries. She also hopes to pursue a career in GIS technology and plans to earn a graduate degree in the field.
“This program colors my entire Dickinson experience. I want to let people know how important it is,” she says, adding that she’s heard that employers who see GIS knowledge on a resumé are typically impressed. “It’s such a hot commodity, and it’s growing pretty fast.
“This is a very powerful, hands-on tool that brings multiple disciplines together. And it isn’t as hard to pick up as you might think.”