GeoInspirations: Randy Raymond, Bringing schools & communities together through meaningful GIS projects

By Joseph J. Kerski

Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today Dr. Joseph Kerski introduces us to an educational pioneer in the GIS industry, Mr. Randy Raymond.

Randy Raymond was one of the first people I met during the early 1990s who was actively using GIS in secondary schools. In fact, he was not only one of the first people in the U.S.A. teaching with GIS, but he was active in STEM, community engagement and workforce development projects at least 15 years before these terms were widely used. He’s been a pioneer in actively living and promoting these themes. I can remember that for years I used to carry around a VHS tape containing a documentary of his work to show every school and teacher that I could. For his tireless dedication to education, science, geography and geotechnology, and for other reasons, I believe that Randy Raymond merits inclusion as a GeoInspiration. It is my hope that after reading this article, you will agree.

“My career started in the late 1960s as part of a Kellogg Foundation project involving the planning of greenbelts along rivers, and the associated water quality studies that needed to take place,” Randy said. “I worked extensively with topographic maps and aerial photographs — the “geospatial data layers” of their time. During the mid-1980s, I met people in the Michigan Department of Natural Resources who introduced me to a GIS program called ArcInfo, from Esri. Back then there was a three-week course just to learn how to set up the software on a Unix machine and how to use it. Times have changed! In 1993, I won an award from Toyota for educational project work. Around that time I met Charlie [Esri’s K-12 program manager Charlie Fitzpatrick] at his first trade show. Charlie was demonstrating ArcView. Back, then, you still had to have ArcInfo to generate the maps so that you could show them in ArcView. In other words, ArcView was truly just for viewing. At this time I also met educator and GIS evangelist Tom McConnell and I met Esri President Jack Dangermond.”

Randy holds degrees from Alma College, Michigan Tech and the University of Michigan in biology and science education. He taught for 10 years in Detroit Country Day School and then served for 21 years as GIS specialist for Detroit Public Schools. He has received numerous prestigious awards, including the International Special Achievement in GIS from Esri, the Meridian Award of Excellence from the Michigan School Business Officials, the Visionary Award from the Detroit Community Initiative, the Environment Quality Award of Excellence from the State of Michigan, and the Spirit of Detroit Award for Excellence in Leadership from the City of Detroit, among many others.

“For several years I focused my efforts on lead in the water and lead in the schools of Detroit, where I used GIS as a fundamental tool for research and communication. For the past several years, I have been involved with the GRACE project, (GIS Resources and Applications for Career Education), a National Science Foundation-funded effort designed to provide high school students and teachers in economically disadvantaged communities an opportunity to learn to use and apply GIS skills and technology in real world situations,” Randy said. “One example of an issue that everyone can support is safe routes to schools. What routes are along streets with the lowest amount of vehicle traffic? Which sidewalks are in need of repair? Which areas have no sidewalks at all? These are issues that cities are also concerned about.”

According to Randy, pavement management is an enormous concern to city officials in Detroit. In Calumet, Michigan, a smaller rural community, the same issues were raised. “Safe routes to schools is a pathway by which communities can receive funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation. In tandem with safe routes to schools is the parallel goal of encouraging students to walk to school to promote outdoor education and fitness. These projects can also take advantage of the ability in ArcGIS Online for citizen scientist — often, the students themselves — to gather data, map it, analyze it and present it to school boards, parents, community groups and city councils.”

Randy is an advocate for the use of GIS technology and methods in education. He sees GIS as a “transformative tool that allows for collaboration.” I love this definition. While we talked about projects that both of us have worked on over the years and some of the methods of problem solving with GIS, Randy continued to give me new insights. He said that “these iterations that you have to go through with GIS may be frustrating, but are important to go through. While preparing your maps and other communications tools, you have to keep asking, ‘Are they clear? Do they make sense?’ GIS encourages you to think differently. It opens up new avenues of learning.”

Randy sees GIS as “a common language.” He is interested in using it in education in part because “students use the same technology that is being used to analyze the world by governments, academia, nonprofits and businesses. Using GIS creates new understandings.” I like that phrase.

“There were challenges to implementing GIS into the K-12 curriculum back in the 1990s. Even with the online and mobile tools at our fingertips today, there are challenges, even with the GRACE project,” he said. Randy was referring largely to curriculum implementation challenges. The technical challenges don’t seem to bother him! “When you learn GIS, then that’s not the end-of-story. Rather, you start using it in all of your subjects.”

Randy’s career has certainly modeled the versatility and utility of GIS: He has used GIS to analyze many different problems and issues, at many different scales, for many different purposes. Randy described the web-mapping applications called story maps as a “rich and powerful environment” that allows students to “combine powerful learning tools and ways of expressing [themselves].” They allow young people to “cultivate creativity.” I like that phrase too.

I admire many things about Randy, but what I may admire most is that his projects always involve students. Yes, Randy knows a lot about GIS, but he’s never held that knowledge close to himself. Rather, he has always been very keen on getting the students involved with the tools, the data and the methods. He believes in young people and it shows. Randy also has an exceptional ability to speak to students across all socioeconomic lines, and as a public school teacher in Detroit for many years, he has been acquainted with hardship. Yet he is ever the optimist and ever the encourager. He has been involved in many projects that have provided clear pathways for students to get internships and paying jobs in engineering, science, planning and other fields. Indeed, he was implementing “workforce development” before most people even considered it for their project proposals!

Another thing I admire is that Randy’s projects have always had clients — those who could benefit from the research and instruction. These clients were seldom just the students, but nearly always included the community, employers, advisory board members and beyond.  “We need more young people understanding why GIS is important for the planet, for their community, and for themselves,” he said.

For all of the projects he’s been involved in, Randy requires students to communicate the results of their work. He’s especially excited about the expanded potential that web GIS brings to this, because with this summer’s projects, as he says, “We have students in ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade making their maps public, doing peer assessment, and sharing their work with the world. Three of the students’ maps are being used by the National Park Service!”  He likes the fact that through these projects, “everyone’s voice can be heard”-- even if different stakeholders have different views.

Randy is a model lifelong learner. To Randy, his use of GIS is “more of a journey” than something you master before moving on to something else. He has kept growing and moving forward with all of the changes he’s seen in GIS, from minicomputers to PCs to tablets and from laptops to the web. He encourages his students to also be lifelong learners. The students he was working with this past summer “were challenged at many stages of the project. I told them, ‘You might have to start over,’ for certain phases of the project. When I do this, each time, I do it a little bit better. Every one of those students rose to the occasion.”

One of the themes that kept recurring during our interview is Randy’s belief that “schools are so connected to their communities and yet so apart from those communities.” I believe his passion for connecting these two fundamental parts of society is what drives him forward. He continues to create projects that integrate GIS and community. One of the projects of which he is presently a leader is the Keweenaw Time Traveler project, which is an online digital atlas for exploring, researching and sharing the social, environmental and economic histories and heritage of the Copper Country in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula over time. Part of the GRACE project, it is impacting 5,000 student explorers, creating 2,500 student investigators, and producing 300-500 qualified GIST interns – not bad for just one of Randy’s many projects! He says that the project is an example of “what I think that we should be doing educationally. This area was the economic center of the world in the mid-1800s with its copper mining. Now it is mainly Superfund sites that have been cleaned up and they look like ruins. We are having students [in this project] capture and render what buildings are like, what they were like, and walk virtually through the landscape in 3D as it is today and as it was 100 years ago.”

Randy remarked that he is mystified why we are still, 25 years after the dawn of GIS in education, having to convince people that the use of spatial thinking and GIS across the curriculum brings many positive benefits. He believes that tens of thousands of schools in the U.S.A. should be using ArcGIS Online by now, instead of a few thousand. But he is a realist—he’s been there — and understands the educational system: “We are at a point where education has become an empirical thing. The technology in Detroit Public Schools is being used for taking tests. Everyone is concerned with who is better, rather than what kids can do with knowledge and skills.  Education should be about how to understand the world better. Education is about discovery of the world rather than exclusively reading about the discoveries of others.”

“We are pushing at the educational system from the bottom up. Who is pulling from the top down?” Randy asked. He acknowledged that schools need to be forced to work with the community; otherwise, they are too busy or do not see the connections possible, and the collaboration won’t happen. This is why he advocates for real projects that make a difference to the community. Those are the projects that will galvanize and involve people.

Randy recommends that the most important thing we can work on as the geography and geospatial community is the “connection between schools and the community.” He recommends that we “make education purposeful and meaningful. Doing so does not have to be complicated. Everyone wants this as an outcome.” He went on to tell me how, when the students presented their results to the community for the historical and geographical history project, the “people in Calumet were just beaming.”

“I’ve always been able to do what I felt was important,” Randy told me. “No one had to tell me to 'go do something exciting.' I’ve just worked on projects that I felt were important. I’ve been fortunate to meet people along the way to enable me to make giant leaps forward.”

Randy’s advice to new geographers? “Stay on top of the technology so you know where GIS is going and how to apply it. Be a lifelong learner. Technology will drive what you can do. Look for ways of applying it to the world around you. Engage in the community.  Partner with others; you cannot do it by yourself.” Randy encourages people to think broadly and think of multiple approaches. “Give people purposeful things to do that are connected to meaningful issues, and  then the work that they do is powerful in many ways.”

“I could retire but … my friends and colleagues still needed me. I realized [in my retirement] that I could still make a contribution. These projects have given me an opportunity to be more involved,” Randy concluded.

Indeed, sir. The word “involved” characterizes your whole career and I salute you.


Published Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

Written by Joseph J. Kerski


Published in

Education

Government

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