Mapping out progress: Local middle-school students use technology to investigate the health of their neighborhoods

North Seattle eighth-graders are learning about local watersheds by using sophisticated mapping software that allows them to study streams near their schools and identify pollution sources in the area.

During the first two weeks of December, students at Eckstein Middle School in North Seattle and Washington Middle School in the Central Area learned how to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to make connections between information about local watershed geography and census data.

"Working in Seattle, in an urban place, we want to show students that we don't have to go to the Olympic Peninsula or Bainbridge Island to get a sense of nature," said Todd Burley, outreach coordinator of the Homewaters Project. "We're doing it in the city, with city kids. Our goal is to help kids appreciate and learn that all these things exist here."

'Visually showing data'

The Homewaters Project, an educational nonprofit organization based out of North Seattle Community College, aims to educate Seattle citizens by connecting them with the environment and their communities. The organization, formerly known as the Thornton Creek Project, was established to address environmental issues affecting the North Seattle watershed. The organization has expanded to address water pollution issues in all of Seattle.

The Water and Community program, a collaborative effort between the Homewaters Project and the Seattle School District, started last year and now includes three teachers and hundreds of students. Based on an inquiry model of education, this program provides teachers with tools to help prompt students to ask questions about issues facing Seattle's water supply.

"GIS is a way of visually showing data," Burley said. "It's mapping technology, but it does more than mapping; it helps you create maps of Census data, topographical maps, land-use maps. We can put in images, line up photos with these data maps, so that we can make sense of data and relate it to the real world. This is what kids at Eckstein and other schools are doing."

Age-appropriate learning

Students get to look at the effect that people have on the environment, using local geography and data.

In Tina Gourd's classroom at Eckstein Middle School, students can zoom in on an aerial photo of the school's neighborhood. Gourd asked one of her classes to compare satellite pictures with these aerial photos. "The photos are much more detailed but show a smaller area," one student said.

With the GIS software program, ArcView, Gourd can help her students turn on various layers of data, including pollution permits that show dots for every point of pollution that the local government knows about.

"Let's find that Shell station," Gourd suggested to one student group. A tiny red dot on their map identified an underground gas tank on their map.

According to Gourd, this program is very middle school-appropriate. "As an eighth-grade teacher, it's very important for me to get my students to start seeing beyond themselves," she said, explaining that middle school students can be extremely self-centered.

The Homewaters Project has developed a curriculum that is grounded in who students are, where they are. "They know these streams, these buildings, these roads. They totally love it," she said.

In addition to the GIS projects, Gourd's five classes are studying five local watersheds. Because of a lack of resources, she is not able to organize actual site visits. "Our dream would be to take each class to the sites they are studying," she said. "It would be great to get 20 or 30 students out to each site, but resource-wise, it's not practical."

Computer learning

With the Water and Community program, Homewaters staff provides teachers with training, materials and support. Teachers are encouraged to find ways to incorporate the lessons into their own curriculum. In certain cases, this means focusing less on computer-based learning.

Tim Snider, an eighth-grade teacher at Eckstein Middle School, has only a handful of computers in his classroom. Without the computers needed to fully incorporate the GIS project into his curriculum, Snider has based most of the learning for this unit on teamwork, integrating the focus questions into a more traditional science curriculum.

Homewaters staff say they plan to include the Water and Community program as part of this expansion. By training more teachers every year, Burley said, the volunteer-reliant organization can continue to reach more students and more watersheds throughout Seattle.

The Water and Community program is funded through the Russell Family Foundation, which granted $15,000 to the Homewaters Project in 2004 to improve and expand the middle-school program.

To volunteer, donate or for more information on the Homewaters Project, visit

For more information on The Russell Family Foundation, visit

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