GeoInspirations: Erik Bushland, Letting Students Fly

August 21, 2019
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Editor’s note: Thank you for joining us for this edition of GeoInspirations. Today our distinguished columnist, Dr. Joseph Kerski, features Erik Bushland, teacher at Sachse High School, Sachse, Texas, U.S.

Think back to when you were in high school. Could you explain your work to an international audience of 20,000 people? Would you have something worth presenting? A highlight of each of the annual Esri User Conferences for me is talking with high school students, who eloquently, enthusiastically, and professionally present their GIS work to thousands of conference attendees. When I met and listened to students last year from Sachse High School, it was clear that they had a teacher who “let them fly.” At their presentation in the map gallery, I asked their teacher, Mr. Bushland, if I could visit him at his high school in Texas the following fall. He graciously agreed, and upon my arrival, I saw some of those same students in his classroom. Seeing Mr. Bushland teaching, and witnessing the amazing work that his students were doing with animation, GIS, and coding, confirmed for me that Mr. Bushland is the kind of teacher that gives me great hope for the future. His students will be the leaders of tomorrow that we can count on to make wise decisions.

I asked Mr. Bushland to describe his current position and background. He said, “I am an animation teacher at Sachse High School where students may take up to three years of animation courses. I teach GIS courses (Spatial Technology and Remote Sensing, Introduction to GIS, and Raster-based GIS) when they are offered. I’m also the Career and Technology — Technical Education department chair. After five years in the Navy, I received a bachelor’s degree in history and English and a Master of Science in technology with my thesis on edutainment (educational entertainment).” [Author’s note: Even though Mr. Bushland has been teaching for many years, he remains excited about technology, excited about teaching, but most of all, excited about being a positive role model in his students’ lives, encouraging them to do and be their best.]

I asked Mr. Bushland if there were a specific thing, or person, that inspired him to enter these fields. He said, “Great question, and I’m not really sure it was any one specific thing, but the event that opened the path was my entering the Alternative Teacher Certification program. I was part of the local community college’s first class, the first year Alt. Cert. was offered in Texas. While I wanted to teach history, there was a program for a grant to cover the cost, but I had to teach career and technology education courses for the first year. Since it was going to save me money, I figured I could do that for a year and then switch to history. Well, that was almost 20 years ago, and while I have taught some history and social studies courses over the years, I found my calling with computers, specifically software.”

What person, class, or topic most inspired Mr. Bushland during his career? “The early debate over edutainment may have been the catalyst for the direction of my career. In the early days there was a lot of discussion about how bad computer games were for children; I thought about the geography I learned from Railroad Tycoon, learning economics and city planning from SimCity, or history and technological timelines from Civilization — all without meaning to. I hadn’t thought about it until now, but the games I enjoy most seem to be those that involve geography. Perhaps that is why I see such value in GIS. Anyway, I felt strongly enough about games in education that my master’s thesis was on the usefulness of edutainment, and I defended the use of games in education. To do that, I needed to look at how games could be used to teach, and that, coupled with my teaching animation, eventually led me to figuring out ways my students could create animations for other classes.

“Naturally to me, I started working with the computer science teacher to figure out how we could make animations/programs/games for other subjects. So, we pitched the idea of combining third year animation with third year computer science to create projects for various subjects. The administration, while skeptical at first, was willing to give us a year to prove our concept. Well it just so happened that summer I attended “The Unknown Moon” workshop in Houston. Since this was a STEM workshop, I made the argument in my application that animation may be the technology and engineering [components] in STEM, but we work with science and math too. The workshop bought my argument, and as a result, I was the only non-math/science teacher in attendance. It was there that I met members of NASA’s Education and Near-Earth Objects programs. To make a long story a little shorter, I ended up with a project for our students to create asteroid deflection games for them. NASA was great to work with, as they understood our emphasis was on the education and learning process, and that we may not finish the games that year. Our partnership only lasted one year due to several reasons beyond our control, including the explosion of the meteor over Russia, but it was a wonderful experience.

“After that first year, we realized that our first project was a bit ambitious, so we scaled back and looked for something a bit closer to home that would benefit the school or community. Our class decided to do a firefighting simulation prototype where we used Esri’s CityEngine to create our base city. Then after presenting the students’ work at the Esri education conference, I was encouraged to pitch the project to our fire department. They loved the idea, and now we are working for the fire department on an emergency response simulation with the first phase (the driving portion) nearing completion. With the fire department as our client, students must work closely with the firefighters. They realize it isn’t about what the student or the teachers want in the simulation, it’s what the fire department requests or needs that drives the project. At the fire department’s request, we are recreating the city (roads, stop signs, buildings, and so on) using ArcMap and CityEngine for the basis, Maya and 3ds Max for models, and then the Unity game engine to program the simulation in virtual reality.”

 What project or initiative is Mr. Bushland the proudest of being a part? “I’ve been fortunate to have been part of programs such as Teachers in Space, I/ITSEC’s America’s Teachers, Discovery Education, and NASA Educators Online Network, but I think what I’m proudest of is my involvement with the Sachse emergency responder simulation. This is a project that I co-teach where my third-year animation class is combined with third-year computer science and, working in conjunction with the local fire department, the students are creating a training simulation. The first stage is the driving simulation for the fire department to use for training their drivers. Now they study paper maps and then drive the roads. This simulation will enhance training and reduce costs (such as fuel and maintenance). Additionally, and at the fire department’s request, it will be in virtual reality. Once done with the driving, the simulation can be expanded to include traffic accidents, fires, train derailments, flash flooding, even gas line leaks — all manner of incidents to help better prepare the fire department and perhaps other first responders.

“The students work as a team but are separated into smaller groups such as Modelers, Lighting, Materials/Textures, Programmers, and Macro Builders, much like in industry. The Macro group uses ArcMap to get the plot data for the two counties (Dallas and Collin) that Sachse is a part of and then isolate the fire department response zone (which is larger than the city). That data was then imported into CityEngine where they are working on creating the buildings and the roads in the appropriate locations. That file is then exported to 3ds Max, Maya, and Unity for further work and enhancement.

While this is a multi-year project, the benefits to the students are incredible and having it used by the fire department and others is a bonus and an excellent résumé builder for the students.” [Author’s note: I know you’re probably thinking, “High school students can do this?” Yes, they can! And I saw them firsthand working with these tools when I visited Mr. Bushland’s classroom.]

What does Mr. Bushland think is the most important thing that we need to work on as the STEM/geospatial community? “I think overcoming our tendency to get comfortable in isolation is extremely important for all subjects. As an example, most high school animation teachers are focused on teaching the technical aspects of animation: the 12 principles, color theory, how to use the software, etc. to create entertainment. All of that is good, but my approach is to see how I can teach animation and bring in other fields. That’s how I was introduced to CityEngine and GIS. I saw the CityEngine software at a modeling/simulation conference and I thought we could use that software to quickly create urban environments for our 3D animations and look where it has led me. I learned about the GIS field, which I didn’t know existed until 2011, and my students are using all those fields in your question, plus a number of others to solve a community problem.”

What is Mr. Bushland’s advice to a new professional in these fields? “As a teacher, figure out ways to make your classes useful to other areas or subjects. Talk to other departments to find out what they cover during the year and see if it is feasible to either teach something similar at the same time or work to create something the other courses could use. A multi-disciplinary approach gives students a way to see how the material matters and may be used and gives students with different learning styles a higher probability of success. From a GIS standpoint, if I see that U.S. history is going to cover the Dust Bowl, the GIS students could create maps of the dust storm patterns or the migration patterns of the population at the time or in advance for the history teacher to use. Sure, it’s a little more work, but the rewards for the students are well worth it. There are a lot of videos and animations on different topics but, in my view, if they were done by students at the school then the students watching would be a bit more vested because they may know the student(s), but at a minimum, the students creating the media will master the material. For instance, it’s kind of tough to create an animation about the atom without learning and studying about the protons, nuclei, etc.” [Author’s note: Agreed! Content knowledge is still important as we teach the skills and the spatial perspective. GIS and spatial data can help us create a map of ocean currents, but it is important to know about water chemistry, the carbon cycle, ocean currents, ecological marine units, and other content as we build those maps and analyze those data sets. And I submit that students using the tools that Mr. Bushland describes are gaining content knowledge as they work with data and tools.]

I asked Mr. Bushland to name his favorite map, and he said, “I think my favorite map is the Piri Reis Map of 1513. It appears to depict the Antarctica continent without its ice caps, and it wasn’t until 1820 that the ‘first’ person saw the Antarctic continent. It makes me wonder about what we think we know, when we really first learned it, and how much we’ve lost.”

I asked Mr. Bushland to share some links with the readers, and in typical Mr. Bushland fashion, he featured his students’ work: “Here are some links to my classes’ work. It is really is all about the students.”

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