Kaitelyn Reidel and her younger sister Erin Reidel, Union, leaned over the library table at Clearview Elementary School to study a topography map of Franklin County.
"The green areas are woods," Kaitelyn commented.
"And what do the lines mean, do you remember?" asked Roger Davis, co-leader of the Franklin County 4-H project, GPS/GIS Trackers, to which the Reidels and one other student, Reagan Simmons, Washington, belong.
"The closer they are, the faster the elevation changes," she noted.
Pointing to a line indicating where railroad tracks are located, Davis asked Kaitelyn why the rail company chose the route it did instead of making more of a straight line.
"Because of the hills there," she said, confidently.
"That's right," Davis remarked, with a smile. "That's GIS - a geographic information system - analyzing why something is there.
"GPS tells us where something is located, and GIS tells us what it is and why it's important," he explained. "It helps you analyze and answer questions."
The GIS.com Web site explained it this way: "(GIS) allows us to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts."
For the last three years, Davis and co-leader Les Kemp have been teaching Franklin County 4-Hers about GIS and GPS, global positioning systems as part of a special project. The GPS/GIS Trackers is the only project of its kind in Franklin County and one of only two in Missouri - the other is in Perryville.
The Franklin County GPS/GIS Trackers was started in 2008 using a few GPS instruments purchased by the Franklin County 4-H Council.
"The inclusion of GIS in our 4-H activities is important because GIS applications will continue to grow in importance in the years ahead," said Davis. "Giving 4-H youth a basic understanding of its capacity will allow them to be better prepared in high school, college and their daily lives to take advantage of this powerful tool.
"There are unlimited applications in agriculture, engineering and day-to-day activity," Davis added. "GIS knowledge gives our 4-Hers a window to an awareness of physical setting interactions at local, national and world levels."
As part of their learning, the 4-H students take on community projects. Most recently they created a large format thematic map showing where all of the food pantries and medical/health facilities in Franklin County are located. They are now in the process of distributing the maps to county food pantries and also to the Franklin County Area United Way.
"It's a guide to steer someone in need to where they can find help," said Dave Hileman, 4-H youth specialist for the East Central Region. "We did it as a community service project, something that would be meaningful and helpful and give the students some practical experience."
Collecting information for the maps can take months of work. The students began the food pantries project in November 2009 and finished this past July.
The students each did field work with their GPS instruments, going to each food pantry and medical facility in the county to collect the geographic coordinates with their GPS machines. Then on their Trackers meeting nights they input the data into a computer program and plotted them on a map.
The GPS aspect of the maps shows the location of the food pantries and medical facilities; the GIS aspect provides the name, address and phone number of each one, Davis explained. The GPS and GIS use different software.
The maps were printed free of charge by Océ North America in Maryland Heights. That was invaluable to the group because the cost of printing maps of this size is expensive, said Davis. The maps were printed in large panels, and the students pieced them together.
Davis said more map projects are in the Trackers future. Some ideas the students have include mapping the locations of all the fire, police and ambulance stations in various cities or where each of the 4-H clubs in Franklin County meet.
More Students Welcome
The GPS/GIS Trackers is a countywide 4-H project, meaning kids can belong to any 4-H club and still participate. The Reidels belong to Clearview Creators, and Simmons is a member of Krakow Go-Getters 4-H.
"More students are always welcome," stressed Davis. "Kids can join at any time."
Leaders Davis and Kemp are retired cartographers who have a soft spot for 4-H. Davis' children were involved with the club, and Kemp was in 4-H when he was a kid.
When the Trackers was started, notices were sent to all of the area schools looking for students with an interest in science. Kaitelyn and Erin joined right away. Reagan joined a year later.
"I thought it sounded interesting," said Kaitelyn. "I like maps and stuff."
Erin said, "I had never known much about GPS, but I wanted to know more."
Reagan said he, too, wanted to learn about GPS because he had heard about a game known as geo-caching, which is like a high-tech treasure hunt. People use GPS coordinates to locate a hidden cache of trinkets. When they find the cache, they take a trinket and leave another.
"It's not about getting the trinket," said Reagan, it's the thrill of the hunt.
The students said the Trackers is fun because it's hands-on and it makes them think. Davis said he sees the knowledge the kids are gaining from the experience as invaluable, no matter what career they eventually end up following, but especially advantageous for any kind of engineering job. But even farming benefits from GPS/GIS, he said.
"This has more and more ag applications," he said. "Farmers can analyze their crops with GIS. There are programs to analyze their fields and yield so they can find out what they can do to improve their yield; what the soil conditions are . . . "
Hileman also sees the Trackers as exposing kids to tangible uses of science.
"They find out that science has real meaning," he said. "If we can make them more familiar with science and technology, they may look at it more as a career path, which is exactly what our country needs."
The Trackers meet the third Tuesday of each month at Clearview Elementary. Meetings run about an hour and a half. There is a minimal charge of $9 a year for being in the Trackers. There also is a user fee of $30 a year.
GIS Day in Washington
The Trackers received a proclamation from Washington Mayor Sandy Lucy proclaiming Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010, as GIS Day in Washington. It was one of many cities in more than 80 countries around the world participating in GIS Day, which is part of National Geographic Society's Geography Awareness Week.
For more information on the GPS/GIS Trackers or to join, people may call the University of Missouri Extension office at 636-583-5141.