March 26, 2010 | Phil de Haan

Students in a Calvin geography class have created online national atlases for Eritrea, Thailand and Nepal with more on the way.

Students in a Calvin geography class have created online national atlases for Eritrea, Thailand and Nepal with more on the way. The project benefits the Calvin students, but also has the potential to make a difference in the lives of students in those countries.

“Most developing nations do not have the capacity to produce national atlases,” said Calvin geography professor Jason Van Horn. “As a result, students (in developing nations) lack a comprehensive resource to thoroughly investigate their own country.”

Calvin professor Jason Van Horn, who joined the college's faculty in 2007, is a geographic informations systems expert with a Ph.D. from the Ohio State University.

National atlases show complex data visually

To create the online atlases, each Calvin student in Geography 222 completes a small number of maps using a standard mapping atlas template, and then all the maps are put together and posted online to form a complex atlas for the country. Van Horn said the Calvin classes have thus far highlighted countries that have heretofore not been represented in this way online.

A national atlas usually has general reference and thematic maps, often several hundred maps. Themes cover not only physical geography, but also will visually represent such things as population density, monthly income per household, number of students attending school, religious distribution, even how many dentists a country has, where registered vehicles are located, crime statistics and much more.

“(It’s) almost everything you’d want to know about a particular country,” said Van Horn. 

Calvin students enjoy practical applications

Students who have been involved in Calvin’s GIS courses, and the atlas project, said it's been a satisfying way to put classroom learning into practical applications.

Andrew Quackenbush, a senior geography major and international development minor from Naperville, Ill., said it felt good to be part of something that will make a difference for years to come.

“It could turn into a viable learning resource for not only those at Calvin, but for anyone,” he said. “It would also be great if somehow these countries could utilize it in their education. I am really excited to see where this project is years from now.”

Quackenbush said the interdisciplinary nature of the project makes it interesting and relevant across the Calvin campus.

Students say GIS applicable in different fields of study

“GIS can be used in so many different fields of study,” he said. “The atlas project is very good at addressing all different sorts of studies in relation to a specific country. For example it deals with economics, geography, political science. I would be surprised if there was a major at Calvin that couldn't be tied in with this project somehow.”

To create their detailed national atlases, Van Horn's charges use specialized geographic information systems (GIS) software, called ArcGIS. GIS, added Van Horn, is simply a way to present data visually, often using maps. Because the information is shown visually it can be shared and understood in a different way than if it was presented as numbers or raw data. The software used by Calvin is an industry standard, the same software students will use when they graduate and work in one of the many fields that employ GIS specialists.

GIS is a high-growth industry

Van Horn said GIS and geospatial information have been identified as a high-growth industry by the Career Voyages Program, a collaboration between the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education. GIS graduates are working nationwide for AT&T, Comcast Cable, Gap, URS, Lockheed Martin, FedX, GE, Boeing, Sara Lee, plus city, county and state governments and more. GIS and GPS also are at the heart of cell phone initiatives, new Facebook services, Foursquare and other social media that use location as a feature of their service.

In April 2010 Quackenbush will get a chance to learn more about GIS initiatives, and rub shoulders with GIS experts in the field, when he tells the story of the Calvin atlas project via a paper called “Teaching National Atlas-Making Skills for Developing Countries using GIS” at the Association of American Geographers national conference in Washington, D.C. He and Van Horn also have co-authored an article on the effort and submitted it to an international geography journal.

Quackenbush said the chance to work closely with Van Horn on the atlas project, the paper and the article has been a big plus as he looks ahead to his May graduation and perhaps graduate school work the following fall.

Students appreciate Van Horn's approach

“Although I have been involved with GIS now for a few years,” he said, “there are still tons of things that I don't know how to do. Professor Van Horn is really great about letting students learn as much as possible and wants to challenge them. And he is very personable. I have never seen a professor give so much care to making sure his students understand the material. He relates very well to all students and cares about them in a very Christian way.”

Van Horn, who spent five years working for Campus Crusade for Christ prior to joining Calvin's faculty in 2007, shrugs off such effusive praise, deflecting the kudos back to his students.

“Andrew has taken this project to the next level,” he said, “and the students in the classes have been great. For me to be at Calvin is something I never thought possible. I figured after graduate school that I would be at a big research university and try to impact students as best I could. To be able (at Calvin) to work closely with really good students and still do my research is the opportunity of a lifetime. And to be able to engage the world with things like the atlas project is what Calvin is all about.”

Mapping the preserve

Calvin GIS students are also mapping closer to home. The Ecosystem Preserve GIS project, said Jason Van Horn, is a good example of Calvin students using their education to benefit an on-campus resource that annually draws thousands of visitors to campus.

The preserve includes 90 acres of temperate deciduous forest, wetlands and old fields on the Calvin campus as well as the Bunker Interpretive Center, which provides a home base for the preserve's many educational programs.

Prior to the Ecosystem Preserve GIS project there was no online resource which could give those interested in the preserve a comprehensive overview of its many geographic features.

That changed when Van Horn and biology professor Randy Van Dragt got together in the spring of 2008 to figure out how to bring Van Dragt's extensive tree census into a geospatial system.

Ecosystem GIS project image

Calvin geography major Scott Jonker was hired to take on that part of the project, and the next summer he expanded his research to create a GIS-based overview of the preserve, including its boundaries, trails, streams and lakes, topography, roads—even where its box turtles are located!

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