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Geography awareness: Out of the classroom, into real-world applications
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High school students get hands on with GIS software during California State University, Stanislaus' geographic information systems awareness event.

Geography often brings to mind school lessons on different countries and their locations, but the field also has multiple real-world applications. In order to educate individuals about the benefits of geographic technology the CSU Stanislaus Geography Department and Office of Service Learning organized an event last week to celebrate international GSI, or geographic information systems, Day.

GIS is a popular tool within the geography industry that stores data within pixels to create maps or infographics, comparable to digital cartography. Programs such as Photoscan, QGIS, and the Esri, which the CSU system uses, allows geographers to input data in order to create a visual representation. The possibilities are endless with GIS and CSU Stanislaus uses the Esri software to create maps for demographics, such as where students are coming from to attend CSUS. Other potential uses include the National Football League who would want to pinpoint an area that successful recruits tend to hail from or a citizen running for public office who wants to know where a certain demographic of voters resides in a county.

“What’s great about GIS is that it consolidates and enriches information,” said Ecology graduate student Adam Fleenor.

The data is collected, inserted into a program, and then boundaries are set in order to focalize the information and style the visual to be reflective of the most pertinent information, according to Geography graduate student Elizabeth Machado. GIS is currently being used with agricultural issues, such as the ongoing groundwater crisis in California.

“I want us to think of GIS just not as those desktop software tools but as a system of data, software, and data interfaces that convert geographic data into useful information to support monitoring and decision making,” said the event's keynote speaker Forrest Melton.

Melton is a senior research scientist at CSU Monterey Bay and NASA Ames Research Center, whose appearance was generated through a partnership that is being forged between Gallo Wineries and the CSUS Geography Department.

“Our president was interested in creating regional partnerships, and Gallo has been interested in our B.A. Geography students. It’s a nice relationship to have and very influential,” said Jennifer Helzen, director of the university's Geography Department.

Melton dove in depth in his presentation on the benefits of GIS technology for California and the globe, but also stressed the need to make it more accessible for the public. He emphasized the importance of accessibility and understanding, saying that the average person who reads the newspaper should be able to understand geographic information.

“If this information sits on a scientist’s computer, it doesn’t matter. Without translation of this data into easy to use functions it won’t have any impact statewide,” said Melton.

Helzen echoed Melton’s sentiment of integrating science into the public, and said that a major objective of this event was to bring high school students exposure to college level geography as well as encourage current college students to pursue internships.  Turlock High School is in its second year of hosting Advanced Placement Human Geography and several students, as well as their teacher Matt Rosengarth, were in attendance. Over 100 high school students, college students, faculty, industry leaders, and local dignitaries attended the event which is the start of an increased awareness in the community of the importance and pertinence of geography, said Helzen.