The Orton Family Foundation: GIS Educators & Entrepreneurs

By Joe Francica

The Orton Family Foundation has been engaged in educating rural communities in land use planning and evironmental stewardship since 1995.It is a non-profit organization founded by Lyman Orton and Noel Fritzinger.Their other activities have included the creation of a company called CommunityViz™ which has developed a GIS software system that allows land use planners and others to visualize the impacts of land development.We asked William Roper, Director of Programs, to provide us with a broader understanding of the foundation and elaborate on their plans for continuing education.

1. When did the foundation begin looking at GIS as a technology for rural community education and as a way to organize rural planning efforts?

Answer: The Foundation was formed in 1995 to assist rural communities plan their land use futures. One of its earliest projects was to build an innovative software suite, called CommunityViz ™. The software is an ArcView application and enables communities to envision their futures through scenario construction, 3D depictions and policy and economic impact forecasting (see In 1999, the Foundation commenced its Community Mapping Program in both Vermont and Colorado, states in which the Foundation has offices. In Community Mapping (presently implemented in grades 7-10), we build a team of teachers (and their students), couple them with a community partner (i.e., a land trust, a museum, a town planner, an agency, etc.), identify a local resource of importance that could use more study, and develop a semester long study satisfying educational standards and resulting in high quality information on the resource, which is then provided back to the community. As part of this program, we make GIS/GPS technology available to the schools and, of course, the students love this. Not only does GIS allow for an excellent analytical tool for the teachers and a high quality map of great value to the community partner, but it is also a "cool" technology that in concert with the study of an existing, local resource introduces a strong and important element of the "real world" in the students' curricula.

The Foundation believes there is great strength in the utilization of visual aids to address land use issues. GIS takes the visual picture and adds the power of data layers that underlay (or overlay) the visual picture.The Foundation has demonstrated the effectiveness and applicability of this approach at the adult and school levels.

2.Who within the Orton Foundation started the initiative to focus on GIS? What is their background?

Answer: Well, let me first point out that the Foundation also provides land use tools that while incorporating visual elements do not rely on GIS. For example, we wrote a 300 page, highly illustrated book entitled Hands on the Land, which studies the influences and relationships between humans and their landscapes in Vermont. We also have a program called Community Video, which assists communities in producing a 30-40 minute video about themselves, focusing on the land use challenges they have faced in the last 5 years and those they expect to face in the next 5 years. This is a great tool to begin or resuscitate citizen participation. Furthermore, we have a program known as Community Planning that produces tools that citizen planners serving on their local zoning and planning boards can use to evaluate or chart the communities' growth patterns.

That said, I would give credit to our Foundation's founders, Lyman Orton and Noel Fritzinger, for understanding early on the power and future of GIS as it relates to CommunityViz (which has been strongly reinforced by our President and CEO, William Shouldice, IV), and I would add to this list of visionaries our Community Mapping Program eastern partner, the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, who helped us develop the program from its inception.

3.Will the Foundation release a guide or curriculum for teachers to implement in K-12?

Answer: Yes, after our first year and a half of implementing the program, we became confident that the Community Mapping Program could be adapted and applied in any state. Thus, we have spent the last 1 1⁄2 years writing a manual that provides both a framework for a project and helpful examples of past work to teachers, community partners and project coordinators. We are now testing this manual and hope to make it available in the next few months. The manual will be the primary resource guide for the program's participants, but will not necessarily replace the need for workshop instruction during the summer.

4.Is the purpose of the program also to encourage teachers to educate rural Community Development in conjunction with elected officials and city planners?

Answer: This may be more a byproduct of the work. Our main purposes are to engage youth in their communities' land use issues, teach them the importance of place, provide a replacement program for teachers to teach "old" concepts in new ways, build important links between schools and their communities, and to produce something of real value for the community partner. We don't expect the teachers themselves to teach elected officials, but it is entirely possible that the students' work will electrify these officials, and open their eyes to the substantive role their youth can play in shaping the future of their communities.

5.Will you be working with statewide leaders in GIS such as with the Globe Program or the National Geographic? I noticed several resources on your site but not these.

Answer: Now that we are finally reaching the point of achieving a stable, replicatable approach, we are quite interested in building a national program through a network of partnerships. The Globe program is an excellent example of another, aligned effort going on around the country (and world), and there are more. We are quite interested in building working partnerships with like-minded organizations that prevent overlap and increase dissemination and application of our and their place-based programs. There is a growing acceptance of this approach in schools but we have a long way to go, particularly in generating the kind of financial support needed for this change in teaching approach.

6.What are your long-term goals for geography education in schools?

Answer: Geography has certainly fallen out of favor in our schools, but the power of using a community's own local resources as the basis for interdisciplinary teaching can bring geography back into the classroom. For example, we have classes that look at a natural resource from science and social studies perspectives. Many landscapes in our country have important histories from both natural and human community perspectives--using GIS to map discoveries and discernable changes over time allows for great analytical exercises. Certainly the application of GIS allows for math instruction, and wrapping all the new information into an informative and compelling narrative, along with public presentations, gives plenty of material for the language arts teachers. Thus, basing a study around a local resource brings geography back into the classroom in a number of ways, albeit in a rather indirect way.

Of course, we hope that when the students study the interconnectedness of natural resources and human communities, and how these links invariably go beyond the scope of their study or the boundaries of their community, this will translate into greater global, geographic awareness (and action).

7.Will you be introducing CommunityViz software into the workshops or only ArcView?

Answer: We are very excited about the possibility of bringing CommunityViz to the classroom, but it requires a fair amount of skill in the application of ArcView and some time in the compilation of necessary data. Teachers find the application of GIS in the classroom a challenge as they can end up teaching how to apply the software rather than how to use it as a tool to undertake in-depth, layered analyses of the subject matter. As Joseph Kerski has been heard to say, "It is about teaching with GIS, not about GIS." We have worked hard on devising teaching methods in our summer workshops and for the teachers in their classroom that help them get to the point of using GIS as the powerful leaning tool that it is.

We are exploring the possibility of offering CommunityViz in a follow up class to our Community Mapping Program, one that would likely only involve one teacher. We've had a number of students when they complete a Mapping project ask us, "OK, what's next?" They are jazzed about the technology, working with their community and studying a local resource-- we'd love to continue that enthusiasm. I should note that one of our Mapping students did develop a summer job with a county planning staff, and his primary task was to help them apply CommunityViz to a particular issue.

Here's another powerful aspect of the Community Mapping program. We've had several students apply their newly learned ArcView and GIS analytical skills in summer jobs, often with the community partner that was involved in the school project.

8.Will you have similar workshops for rural community leaders or will CommunityViz be doing that?

Answer: As mentioned above, we have a number of tools that we have developed for rural communities. In the application of CommunityViz to particular issues or needs, an interested person would contact the CommunityViz directly for training ( I should also mention that CommunityViz is an ongoing Foundation project, so when one calls CommunityViz, one is calling the Foundation. If one is interested in our Community Mapping, Community Video or Community Planning programs, one can go to our website for general description and contact information (

9.Can you provide details on the amount of investment you are making in geography education?

Answer: The important thing to remember here is that we are an operating foundation. Granting foundations are the ones who provide funding in response to funding applications; operating foundations use or raise money to pursue their missions. Thus, we do not provide funding to "outside" organizations; instead, we apply our funding to the identification and development of new tools that help rural communities plan their futures. We then seek other partners who can bring these tools to their communities or regions AND we search for entities that would like to financially support the application of these tools. Now that I've finished with that caveat-of-sorts, I can tell you that in the last 3 years, we have invested over $700,000 in this program.

10.Do you have a goal in reaching a certain number of students or teachers?

Answer: Well of course we want as many teachers and students as possible to implement a community mapping project in their community. We have already seen some economies of scale as more schools in Vermont, Colorado and New Hampshire undertake these projects. I can tell you that over the last 3 years we have worked with over 66 schools, 144 teachers, and 1,452 students. Our goal is to spread the program to a number of additional states in the upcoming school year. We believe we will witness beginning projects in Maine and Texas this coming fall. Our partner in the east, the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, just received a grant of $120,000 over three years for the introduction of the Community Mapping Program into a discrete region of New Hampshire, a very exciting development in the program. We are also hopeful that our program will take hold in Pennsylvania in the near future.

We are developing a model, which we believe will encourage and support the expansion of this program on a national basis and hope to implement this model over the next few years. I encourage any teacher, community partner, individual or organization that is interested in learning more about our program and possibly playing a role in the application of The Orton Family Foundation's Community Mapping Program to your school, community or region to visit our website (

For more information contact:
William Roper
Director of Programs
The Orton Family Foundation
128 Merchants Row
Rutland, VT 05753
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Published Tuesday, July 30th, 2002

Written by Joe Francica

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