Students shine at data mapping

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Whitefish sophomore Julia Houston presents part of the Glacier National Parks Rare Plants project she worked on with fellow students Emma Nixon and Grace Kurtz on Tuesday evening, at the Whitefish High School. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Attribute tables, spatial analyses, vector data models, coordinate reference systems.

The jargon of Geographical Information Systems may sound hopelessly incomprehensible to many people, but students at Whitefish High School are making strides in the increasingly important area of study.

Eric Sawtelle is the lead instructor for the class that introduces students to the powerful data-mapping tool and just wrapped up its first year this spring.

He said the idea came from a GIS conference in Kalispell several years ago where students from Bigfork High School were presenting the findings of their projects based on the interdisciplinary tool.

“Just seeing the presentations made me want to start it in Whitefish,” Sawtelle said. “It seemed like such a good pathway to get students into science and technology — professional, marketable skills [that] seemed like a really good thing for the kids.”

Presenting end-of-year projects recently, high-schoolers explained the process of gathering data — both in person and by working with public agencies at the local, state and federal levels — and mapping it to better understand a range of local issues.

“We really think it’s a powerful tool to use, with a lot of applications,” Whitefish student Emma Nixon said.

She worked with fellow students Grace Kurtz and Julia Houston mapping the locations of goose-grass sedge near Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park. The plant is rare in the park since it is near the edge of its natural range.

“We chose this plant because of its proximity to Hidden Lake, and because it hasn’t been studied extensively,” Nixon added.

Using data from park biologists and geographers, they created a multi-layer digital map of the area around the lake, including the locations in terms of elevation and distance from the shore, as well as geological attributes and sources of water.

Among their conclusions was that because the sedge is especially dependent on late-season melt water from snowfields, climate change could have an adverse effect on their continued existence in the park if average snow precipitation drops.

“I think the community, and maybe the population at large can take a lesson from this, because global climate change is a problem,” Kurtz said, adding that their comfort with the program didn’t come instantly: “We might make it sound very smooth right now, but a couple months ago we were pretty confused.”

That confusion was in short supply during the presentations, however, as students explained their high-tech approaches to mapping harlequin duck populations, the potential for aquatic invasive species in Whitefish Lake and the viability of urban trees throughout downtown.

For their project, Cassidy Grady and Annika Gordon hit the streets of Whitefish, collecting information on trees planted along the streets and sidewalks. Recording each GPS location, they also included the tree’s health, height and species. Laid out on a map, they were able to see how the diversity of those characteristics was distributed throughout the town.

“There is less disease impact if you have different species of trees,” noted Gordon. “So if a disease does come through an area, it doesn’t impact all the trees.”

They identified specific areas of concern, finding clusters of maples and birches in poor health, which could pose hazards to cars and pedestrians. They concluded that city planners could enhance the urban forestry environment by spacing out trees of the same species and selecting smaller, deciduous trees with root structures unlikely to disturb paved surfaces.

In all, 20 students presented their findings for nine separate projects that included mapping the Whitefish Trail system and identifying the distribution of Whitefish’s urban bird populations.

Students Haley Burger and Barrett Gray proposed a map of possible public recycling locations within the town, noting that 75 percent of all waste is recyclable but only about 30 percent gets recycled.

They offered two budget-sensitive alternatives: One would add 12 recycling bins to create a 1.2-million-square foot area in which people would be within 200 feet of a bin at all times; the second would add six bins for a 900,000-square-foot coverage area.

“We used the GIS buffer tool, then calculated the area of the buffers and transferred the map online,” Burger explained.

“GIS was very helpful for the development and visualization of our proposal,” added Gray.

The work was made possible by grants from the Glacier National Park Conservancy, Plum Creek, the Whitefish Community Foundation and other partners, who offered money for GPS equipment, the GIS program and the powerful laptops required to run it.

Park geographer Richard Menicke also volunteered his expertise, visiting the school once a week as a co-instructor and helping Sawtelle reach a level of comfort with the program the summer before.

He said he had been interested in helping students get a grant for GIS for a few years, and after connecting with Sawtelle, who lives in the same neighborhood, the two were able to get the fledgling program off the ground.

“A couple of the students are interested in wildlife biology and some of the natural sciences,” he said. “They recognize that GIS is the tool they will need to converse in to pursue that profession.”

Regardless of whether they pursue GIS-related coursework or careers after they graduate high school, Menicke said he was impressed at how quickly the students picked up the complex technology.

“The beauty of this, teenagers are growing up with technology, so they have these point-and-click expectations and it’s all become very intuitive for them,” he said, adding he had more than 25 years of experience in GIS.

“That are very fast learners, and even in this class I’ve seen some of the kids stretch the technology like I couldn’t have imagined. They expect it to work instantly, and they’re quick to stretch it to where they want it.”

Reporter Samuel Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at

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