High School GIS at Bigfork Montana

Blog Post created by bigforkcaveclub on Mar 4, 2015

I have been teaching a High School GIS class for 5 years now.  The class has a website that occasionally attracts some attention (  Recently it attracted the attention of a teacher who was interested in starting a GIS class at her high school.  Because the teacher is far away from my school, I put her in contact with some of the education folks at ESRI. I also wrote out some rather lengthy responses to the teacher’s questions.  It was suggested I share these responses more widely.  So here are slightly modified responses regarding our GIS program at Bigfork High School in northwest Montana. 


Emphasis of our Program – The emphasis of our program at Bigfork is primarily environmental studies.  In particular our students are involved in a many field studies.   This leads to some politicking to get enough field trips, but our school board is very supportive and most of our trips are pretty cheap.  (More on funding later).   Our emphasis on environmental studies makes great sense in our rural setting.   Our high school isn’t very big (about 350 students in the high school), which makes our class sizes small.  We are close public lands. For example there is a small wildlife refuge 5 minutes from school and we can go there and back during a 50 minute class period.  Also, because public lands are so close my students and their families are often strongly tied to issues related to the management and conservation of these lands.  It makes for a very engaging, real-world program.  I think if you look at some of the other HS GIS programs that are developing throughout the nation, most are for schools in urban settings (which is realistically where most people live).


Partnering with local Agencies – One aspect of our program at Bigfork that I really like is the many partnerships we have with local land managing agencies. I don’t know what the possibilities are in your area, but I suspect there are some, if not many.  Montana has great deal of public land and we are able to work with agencies like the US Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Montana State Parks.   All of these agencies are greatly understaffed and under budgeted.  As a result these agencies have many GIS worthy projects they are unable to consider, and this creates a niche for our students.  You probably saw the spectrum of projects on our website.  I think if are interested you would be able to get projects like these initiated with land managers and conservation groups near your school.


Curriculum – I haven’t had to create a curriculum (which I like because it gives me more freedom), but I just started offering day-long workshops for interested teachers.  I have an overview of the workshop if anyone is interested.  I think the workshops present most of the skills I try to introduce to my students.  Perhaps it would be useful in considering what to include in a curriculum.  However, I suspect there are HS GIS curricula available, but the few I have looked at are for college multi-year programs.  There are a few text books I use as a reference for me and my students, but I don’t teach out of these texts.  I think you could use a text to derive a curriculum.  I think for that purpose I would recommend “The GIS 20 Essential Skills”. 


Online Versus Desktop – Right now ESRI (the developers of GIS) are pushing to move GIS into the cloud.  They are developing lessons, workshops, and incentives to entice use of ArcGIS Online (AGO).  However, all of the agencies we work with are still mostly rooted in ArcGIS Desktop, and I think it will be at least 5 maybe 10 years before Desktop becomes obsolete.  AGO has some slick advantages over Desktop.  It can be used from nearly any platform that can connect to the internet and maps can be shared with anyone with internet access.  However, AGO is not yet as powerful at organizing and analyzing data as is Desktop.  Also, if your internet doesn’t work well, AGO can be frustrating.  I recommend educators who want to go for it, use both AGO and Desktop, Also, try to keep up with the changes, at least for the aspects of AGO and Desktop you will use with your students.  Both AGO and Desktop are available to public school educators for free. 


Dual Credit Options – High school students in their second semester of GIS at Bigfork can earn 2 semester college credits in addition to the semester of high school science credit they earn.  The dual credit option gives our program quite a bit more credibility.  At Bigfork our students earn high school credit in science.  I think other high schools have considered putting GIS into computer science and vocational venues.  The college credit for our students is in surveying.  I think if you are interested in trying to make your class a dual credit class you would need to find a nearby college that will work with you.  I suspect they are out there.


Lessons/Projects – On our website I have 3 lesson plans. I developed these for different field projects my students regularly complete.  I created the lesson plans to earn renewal units.  I don’t typically write out lessons in detail.  For the GIS educator workshops I teach, I created shorthand lesson plans that go outline the steps for the activities I guide the participating educators through.  I can share these with anyone who is interested.   Additionally, there are lots of online resources. However, rather than structured lessons, I typically take a different tact.


I usually only give my students one or two days of guided lessons, then throw them into a project. For the first semester in high school the students are all thrown into the exact same or very similar projects.  This year I had all of my high school students start out by georeferencing cave maps to air photos then creating a poly outline, Next they georeferenced 1937 air photos to more recent ones and cataloged changes.  These projects gave them basic skills before the second semester, when each student in the class worked on an individual project to earn dual credit.  Some of the students’ 1937 to recent air photo comparisons are on the 3rd page of our website about 2/3rds of the way down under “Then and Now”.  Here is a link to a nice one:



Here is a link to a cave map outline created by one of my students.


Also, during the first semester the students are out a lot collecting data for projects they will work on second semester.  For most field trips I don’t create lesson plans. These trips require organization of gear, explaining logistics to students, and coordinating with land managers.  That is really the sort of planning that makes our projects work.


Costs – Our school district budgets for field trips and has been generous with our GIS program.  Our school board and administrators realize that our GIS field trips are essential to our students collecting field data for use in the classroom.  Most of our trips are local and not very expensive.  There are some conflicts with other teachers and other programs, but all and all these are minimal.  After working with agencies for about a year, we started getting small contracts and grants from these agencies to pay for trips that were further from school.  I also am an active grant writer and have been able to get one or two grants a year. Most of these are pretty small, less than $4000.  Our biggest challenge in terms of funding was (and still is) getting enough high quality computers to run Desktop.  I now have 15 good laptops.   Tower type computers work better and are cheaper, but I don’t have enough classroom space for towers.  The specs for computers to run desktop can be found online using a simple Google query.


Local mentors – I work closely with local teachers that want to use GIS in their classroom.  Unfortunately, I am in a pretty isolated part of the US and realistically can’t work with that many teachers. There are also a number of local GIS professionals that help me and other teachers.  One retired GIS specialist actually volunteered in my classroom twice a week for most of a year about 3 years ago.   I initially started in GIS as a result of this same specialist pestering me to bring GIS into my classroom. Six years ago I had no training or background in GIS.  At the insistence of the retired specialist, I cautiously started using GIS with students in a cave exploration club I sponsor.  (Check out our cave club site if you want more info on that  I also had a lot of help from a friend who uses GIS at work.  He lives about 8 hours away.  He and I were able to get together and spend a solid day and a half working through a procedure for my students to get going on our first project (a cave mapping project in Glacier National Park). After that I have had many GIS professionals pitch in to help my students and me with different problems.   I really like collaborating with GIS professionals.  I think this type of collaboration is in the spirit of the saying “It takes a village to educate a child”.  Too often what we teach in our schools is somewhat isolated from the community that surrounds the school.  I have only just recently started giving workshops and trying to share what I have learned…but I still have much to learn and GIS is a rapidly evolving program.


So – that is mostly what I shared with the other teacher.  I hope perhaps posting my responses more widely will be of interest to others.  Perhaps it might encourage yet another teacher to take the leap.  I was very reluctant to get started.  It seemed like much more than I could take on, but now I wouldn't want to go back to a more traditional education framework.



Hans Bodenhamer

Bigfork High School GIS