Mapping Oregon’s Wetlands with Help from High Schoolers (and Gigabit Technology)

A spotlight on a Mozilla Gigabit Community Fund grantee in Eugene, OR

For part of their school day, students at Kalapuya High School in Eugene, OR can’t be found at their desks, jotting notes or perusing textbooks.

Instead, they’re outdoors navigating thousands of acres of wetlands, tending to an ecosystem that’s home to countless plants, animals and trails.

“We asked our high school students to step into the shoes of geobiologists and ecologists,” says Stefan Aumack, principal at Kalapuya.

Kalapuya is an alternative high school for at-risk students: “They’ve not found success in mainstream high schools for any number of reasons,” Aumack explains. “They come to us often disenfranchised and not very excited about education.”

Pacific Northwest wetlands | Flickr, via Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington

As part of the school’s innovative curriculum, it partners with the Army Corps of Engineers, which is currently carrying out wetlands restoration work in the region. Tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-grade students are paid to catalogue local flora and remove invasive species. They navigate the region on foot and by canoe alongside Kalapuya staff. “We try to expose them to career pathways, teach technical skills, and build pride,” Aumack says.

Recently, the Army Corps identified a new need their young partners could assist with: a comprehensive map of local plants. “The Army Corps wants that information, but doesn’t have the field staff to collect it,” Aumack explains.

So Kalapuya students — equipped with handheld Geographic Information System (GIS) technology — can step in and help. The technology is paid for with a grant from the Mozilla Gigabit Community Fund via our partnership with the National Science Foundation, and is administered through the Bethel Education Foundation.

In spring 2018, Kalapuya students will begin their work. They’ll be streaming GIS data back to the Army Corps of Engineers in real-time, taking advantage of Eugene’s high-speed, low-latency gigabit network. In the process, students will support the local ecosystem — and learn all about an emerging technology.

“It gives students high-tech, high-wage, and high-skill career paths,” Aumack says. Indeed, job databases show dozens of recent GIS-related openings across the state of Oregon, at utilities, consulting firms, technology companies, and federal agencies.

Joshua D. Mongé, Director of Economic Development at Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce, shared a relevant anecdote from his university days: “I went back for a degree a few years ago. We had a guest speaker who was a GIS nerd. He had recently gone back to school to get his GIS certificate — and before he finished the class, he had 6 offers for employment.”