Bigfork seventh-grade students crouch down on the rocks, reaching out to extend their nets into the Eagle Bend Yacht Harbor’s water last Thursday.
They scoop up net-fuls of what looks like muck—vegetation, mud, and dead leaves. Sifting through the muck, they find what they’re looking for, flies, worms, insects, anything they can identify and count.
The students are the second class this school year to hit up the ponds at Eagle Bend and look for insect-life. They count the different types of bugs, trace the boundaries of each pond and put the information into a geographical information mapping system (GIS).
It’s part of the GIS class taught by Hans Bodenhamer at the junior high school. Fall and spring trimester classes collected information from Eagle Bend ponds while the winter class collected information from Bigfork businesses.
Seventh-graders Shantel Calbick, Kassandra Surber, Christian Bencomo and Donovan Mischke presented on both projects at the Intermountian GIS Conference, which took place April 16-20 at the Kalispell Red Lion Inn. They presented with the help of Bigfork senior Austin Curtis, who is a teaching assistant to Bodenhamer.
“I consider him a fellow teacher,” Bodenhamer said. “He knows this program better than anyone else.”
Curtis took GIS classes from Bodenhamer as a sophomore and a junior. An introductory GIS class was offered at the junior high this year, so Curtis signed up to help Bodenhamer out.
Bigfork High School is in its third year of offering GIS classes as part of their earth sciences program. The classes were helped into existence by GIS work the Cave Club did with the help of Denny Rea, who was Flathead County’s GIS specialist for many years. Bodenhamer is the Cave Club’s advisor.
“It’s a good educational tool for more than just science,” Rea said. “Every dot we put on a map has a database behind it, how much information is in that database is up to you.”
Bodenhamer said Rea pushed the Cave Club to use GIS software for the data they collected. As Cave Club members became more proficient with the software and started working with state agencies like the forest and park services, thoughts turned toward teaching a class at the high school. Rea volunteers to help with the classes once or twice a week.
“Mr. Bodenhamer is right on the cutting edge, he’s doing stuff that GIS students in college aren’t even doing yet,” said Rea. “He’s got his students right out in the field collecting data.”
Many of Bodenhamer’s high school students also presented on their work at the Intermountain GIS Conference. In addition, they entered posters into a conference competition mostly filled with college students. Some of the posters presented data the students collected themselves and others presented data they were given to compile for state agencies.
One of the maps Bigfork’s GIS classes dotted, databased and presented at the conference was a project that detailed human impact in the Jewel Basin.
The project was done for the Hungry Horse/Glacier View Ranger District in collaboration with Jewel Basin Area Manager Colter Pence. It was a project the Forest Service had penciled out one summer to complete. Pence said the students gathered information on 75 campsites and numerous trails in just one weekend.
Students then mapped out information on campfire rings, trails, trail off-shoots, and campsite usage.
“They are operating at very high proficiency levels,” Pence said. “(Levels) where some of us in this office are struggling very hard to get.”
Information provided by the Montana Department of Transportation went into Bigfork junior Emily Smith’s map. Her map detailing roadkill numbers on Montana 83 won the $100 poster contest.
“She’s really sharp spatially, and she just really took off on it,” Bodenhamer said.
Smith thinks she won the contest because her poster was simple. It reveals animal crossing hot spots on a map of Montana 83 by showing the density of roadkill along the whole stretch highway.
It’s her first year in the class and she wants to take it again, but isn’t sure if it will fit into her schedule.
“I really like this class,” Smith said. “It’s really good to learn a really good skill that’s growing.”
Bodenhamer said it’s one of the only fields in the economy that is still growing. GIS skills can be used for things like city and council parcel management, crime mapping, and census mapping. The Forest Service, National Park Service, and county all have GIS specialists.
At the conference, Montana Department of Health employees approached Bodenhamer about a potential GIS project for his students. The project would show how diseases make their way across the state. Several conference attendees offered to find internships for his students.
Working with state agencies on projects like the Jewel Basin footprint map gives students something tangible to look toward as they graduate high school.
“There’s a realism factor,” Bodenhamer said. “They’re working on stuff that’s actually going to be used outside of school and they start to develop a real work ethic.”