UW-Madison: Learning Project Blends High Tech With Tradition in Rural Alaska

CONTACT: Timothy Olsen, (608) 263-2086, [email protected];
De Anne Stevens, (907) 451-5000, [email protected]


MADISON – High-tech geospatial tools are being paired with traditional Native knowledge of the land to create learning opportunities for Alaskan students, teachers and community members in a new project led by educators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded $869,000 to the university’s Environmental Remote Sensing Center (ERSC) and two partners, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys (DGGS), to develop a series of after-school and summer learning activities that include annual field camps in rural Alaska.

Called MapTEACH (short for Mapping Technology Experiences with Alaska’s Cultural Heritage), the three-year project seeks to educate students, teachers and others in geospatial information technology that applies to their local conditions; relate modern science and technology to traditional knowledge; and help develop a growing and sustainable rural economy.

“The idea is to try to find new ways to tell old stories about the landscape,” says project director Timothy Olsen, a staff member at ERSC, part of UW-Madison’s Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

“In rural Alaskan communities, many people have a deep and extensive knowledge of the landscape and of the natural resources that exist out there. So there’s real expertise, and this project gives us a chance to try to build on that using geospatial information technology.”

The project has targeted three localities in Alaska, including some of its most economically challenged rural areas.

“Some of these communities are extremely rural, lacking most of the modern amenities that we take for granted in other parts of the country,” says De Anne Stevens, a DGGS geologist and 2003 alumna of the Environmental Monitoring Graduate Program at UW-Madison. “The communities are frequently very small, with very few teachers.”

Stevens and Olsen developed the idea for the project through discussions about educational needs in rural Alaska, where Stevens frequently works in the field. She’s been interested in finding ways to make geologic maps and other DGGS products more accessible to local people, and Olsen has long had a keen interest in technological education for young people. They sought funding under a special NSF program to promote just that.

MapTEACH will introduce participants to technologies such as satellite and aerial photographs and analysis, Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites and transmitters, and computer mapping and modeling. Olsen says these tools will allow local people to build on long-practiced methods of characterizing the landscape, particularly among Native Alaskans.

“In the arctic tundra and sub-arctic areas of Alaska, people have traditionally gone out into the bush without maps. They’ve used oral stories to guide their way,” says Olsen. “The descriptions that people have heard from elders, and the experiences they have hunting, fishing and berry gathering, are the things that make them experts. What we want to do is help make a connection between that traditional expertise and this new information technology.”

Some of the technology has already found its way into rural Alaska, where people sometimes use GPS transmitters and other gear. Olsen says this project will give more community members opportunities for hands-on education in a range of high-tech tools.

MapTEACH will be implemented in two separate but content-equivalent formats to meet the unique requirements of reaching students in rural Alaska. Students serviced by centralized school districts will take part in a nine-week after-school program. Other more geographically dispersed students will be brought together in Intensive Studies Institutes at established living and learning facilities for two weeks of full-time instruction.

“This is informal science education; it won’t actually take place in the classroom. It will take place after school and during the summer,” Olsen explains. “Participants will have an intensive two-week introduction to a number of topics, including cartography, topographic maps, geology and glacial morphology, all connected to and building upon local knowledge of the landscape.”

Participants will then take a week-long camping trip in the bush, where they’ll combine traditional knowledge with high-tech tools to measure and document the landscape.

“That will be the real test of how we can connect these two different ways of knowing,” says Olsen. “We’re looking for the interests and goals of local people to guide us in how we use the technology, so we’re going to listen to what they want to do and how they want to do it.”

Stevens says the curriculum is evolving based on local input in each of the three sites.

“Each group of materials will be tailored to speak to what’s going on in the landscape there,” she explains. “Students will be able to look out their own windows and see the things that we’re talking about and relate it not only to the science and technological imagery, but also to their own culture and history.”

Stevens says the project will help strengthen technical expertise in rural communities that often face growing issues of land ownership and land-use planning, and it will help students develop employable skills.

“We hope that young people will gain proficiencies that are marketable,” Olsen explains. “The U.S. Department of Labor recently identified geospatial technology as one of the hottest trends in new technology; it’s going to be an area of tremendous growth in the economy.”

Olsen also says one of the driving forces behind the project is the need for sustainable development in many parts of rural Alaska.

“We’re trying to help people develop activities that bring a cash economy into very remote areas of rural Alaska, where at times there’s very little cash economy of any kind,” he says. “So a very challenging and idealistic goal is not only to assist in the education of students and teachers, but to do it in such a way that they can have viable, meaningful work in rural areas of Alaska using high technology.”

The project could help develop and broaden business opportunities based on hunting and fishing, camping and hiking, gold prospecting and other outdoor activities.

MapTEACH is funded under NSF’s Information Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program, which is designed to increase opportunities for students and teachers to learn about and use information technologies (IT) within the context of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and aims to foster IT workforce development.

“We’ll measure our results according to the products that students and teachers create using the technology, and according to how they perceive how useful it is,” says Olsen. “We’re also going to look at general trends in academic performance. Alaska has a set of standards, and we hope to see improvements in those as well. But our primary goal is to improve geospatial information technology proficiencies in a marketable way.”

For more information about MapTEACH, visit http://www.mapteach.org/.


– Steve Pomplun, (608) 263-3063, [email protected]