LEWISTON, IdahoAsking the right question can open the door to student learning. That's been the experience of Steven Branting, an award-winning teacher and consultant in gifted education. Whether he's designing a Webquest about a forensic science mystery, explaining how to use the sextant for navigation, or helping students use sophisticated mapping software to analyze historical trends in their community, he starts by posing an open-ended question designed to promote deep thinking. His students from Jenifer Junior High recently harnessed new technologies to investigate an old mystery: When the city moved its old cemetery more than a century ago, what happened to the original graves?
Lewiston, a city of about 30,000 located at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers, got its start during Idaho's 19th-century gold rush. Today, Normal Hill Park offers residents a popular gathering place. But back in the 1860s, this was the site for the city's first burial ground. By the 1880s, as new buildings went up in the neighborhood known as Normal Hill, city fathers decided to move the cemetery to a new, larger site farther from the center of town.
"Rumors have circulated for years that they moved more headstones than graves," Branting relates. He was curious, in particular, about an unmarked common grave in the new cemetery, where unidentified remains were reburied. He challenged his students to do some historical sleuthing. In particular, he suspected that mapping technology might reveal a pattern suggesting how the old graves had been relocated.
The young detectives were then seventh-graders. They had signed up for Branting's elective class, intrigued by the chance to use global information systems (GIS) software and handheld global positioning system (GPS) units. Says a student named Ian, "Digital mapping sounded interesting. I'd used computers quite a bit before, but this software was new to me. I was curious."
Branting introduced them to the tools gradually, first conducting scavenger hunts around campus that made use of the GPS units. Students next learned to use ArcView* software in combination with city data, census records, and other information to generate maps. Each map captures a different view of the community, from a geological, land-use, cultural, or demographic perspective. Students added historical photos, which they had scanned and retouched using graphics software, and wrote text to accompany the visual elements. The result is an electronic presentation that charts the history of their community.
Branting entered their presentation in a project called the Community Atlas. Sponsored by ESRI, maker of GIS software, Community Atlas challenges students to post descriptions and maps about their community on a Web site (www.esri.com/industries/k-12/atlas/*). Students from Jenifer Junior High were thrilled when their presentation was named the model project for 2001-2002. In July 2002, they and their teacher were invited to San Diego to address an audience of more than 11,000 at an international conference for GIS users.
By then, the students had made more progress on their cemetery research project. They combined technology with shoe-leather research. "They walked every row of the cemetery," Branting says. Working in pairs, they searched 18,000 grave sites to find those dated prior to 1890. "One of us used the GPS unit and the other took notes," a student explains. They created a database of information about 120 graves, including each person's name and the dates of birth and death.