Students map out the future

Interns, communities benefit from Global Information System experience

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— In the corner of a cluttered room at the Bureau of Land Management, 16-year-old Bryan Foster is building the foundation of a project so large its influence will be felt by Moffat County residents years from now.

As part of a summer internship program, Foster is mapping property boundaries into the BLM's Geographic Information System. The odd yellow, white and purple shapes that fill in Moffat County and flash across the computer screen will link to a series of data on fire management.

By clicking on properties, the BLM will be able tell firefighters if property owners want wild fires to burn or be extinguished.

But that is not all the possibilities this map holds for many government offices in the Moffat, Routt and Rio Blanco counties. Nancy Miles, from Moffat County's assessors office, said she sees this map connecting with information to form a visual database for counties assessing real estate value, farmers lining fence posts and out-of-state hunters checking private property boundaries.

Other maps, ones with waterways, highways or hazardous spills, can be laid over the map Foster is creating and would show property owners if their land would be affected by developments or accidents.

And, for Foster, learning how to use the GIS program has opened a new career field.

"I have thought about it," the junior said about pursuing a career in GIS. "It shows me what's out there."

Foster is one of two high school interns working with community programs developing GIS projects.

Foster and Steamboat Springs High School student Forest King, who works with Routt County planners, began working with GIS in their high school classes as part of the Orton Institute's pilot program to introduce GIS to high school students.

In connection with the Orton Institute, the Yampa Valley Community Mapping Program has worked with more than 500 Routt County and Moffat County students by joining them with community organizations that have GIS projects.

In the last 10 years, GIS, which maps data, exploded in use as it became more accessible to personal computers and easier to users.

Today, many community organizations are using GIS for community planning, neighborhood health indicators and property valuation.

"It's like getting into computers 20 years ago. There are going to be all kinds of opportunities," Yampa Valley Community Mapping Program Coordinator Elizabeth Matlack said.

BLM's GIS Coordinator Pam Levitt said with Foster's experience he could gain an entry level position at most government offices.

GIS technicians are needed to build databases like the one Foster is completing.

"Almost nobody has [training]," Levitt said. "And, it's what the future is being built on."

GIS education is in high demand with two local colleges Colorado Mountain College and Colorado Northwestern Community College offering classes this year.

But Foster and King's internships also give the students an early taste of the real working world.

Last summer, King worked for his dad's construction company. It was a typical summer job, he said.

But this summer King is working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to help county planners map housing, traffic and noise level around the county's controversial gravel pits.

What King finds will be part of a set of indicators that quantify the impact of gravel pits on surrounding neighbors.

Rather than reading dry data, planners, through the GIS map that King helps create, will be given a crystal clear view of the impacts of gravel pits.

"It's just a way that helps them make a better decision," King said.

Like Foster, King said he also is considering a career using GIS.

"I am looking at colleges and looking at a lot of GIS programs," the senior said. "Being in this office, I'm definitely planning to be a planner one of these days."

With technical knowledge at low prices, interns are welcomed additions to government offices like the planning department and BLM.

Building a base map that could be used to connect an endless stream of data, Foster has considerable responsibility for a high school junior.

"I have to make sure it's right," Foster said. "If I mess up on something, I redo the whole thing."

County Planner John Eastman said the GIS work King is doing for $8 an hour would have cost the county $50,000 in consulting fees five years ago. Through high school classes, Foster and King were already knowledgeable in the workings of GIS.

"[King] came with a fairly high degree of training. He was ready to hit the ground running," Eastman said. "He has the average level of GIS skills for a planner."

In Marian "Sam" Marti's class at Steamboat High School, King worked on a project that mapped accidents along Rabbit Ears Pass.

Foster worked on a project in Doug Field's class that mapped the mineral rights of the Museum of Northwest Colorado.

This school year's project will be mapping unmarked gravesites in Moffat County.

The downside to the Yampa Valley Community Mapping Program is that the community has many more GIS projects than teachers, who have tight teaching curriculums, have the time to bring into their classrooms.

"It's good news, bad news," Matlack said. "There are tons of projects but not tons of teachers and kids to get to do the projects."

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