UT Geographers Conduct STEM Outreach with Morgan County Middle, High School Students

UT geography graduate student Kyle Landolt demonstrates the use of the department’s virtual sandbox to students attending the Morgan County College and Career Fair.

UT geography graduate student Kyle Landolt (standing) demonstrates the use of the department’s virtual sandbox to students attending the Morgan County College and Career Fair.

Morgan County middle and high school students got a hands-on lesson on ways the field of geography can address real-world problems through technology, courtesy of staff and students from UT’s Department of Geography.

The UT team recently took part in the Morgan County College and Career Fair at the Wartburg Vocational Center. Several hundred middle and high school students and teachers attended the fair.

“My goal was to impress upon the students that there is more to geography than memorizing capitals and coloring in maps. To that end, we set up several stations to highlight the ways in which STEM fields apply to geography,” said Michael Camponovo, a Geographic Information System (GIS) outreach coordinator based in the Department of Geography.

GIS is a computer-based tool that captures, stores, analyzes, and displays geographic information on a map.

During the fair, UT graduate students Kyle Landolt and Zach Merrill demonstrated three geographic tools to participants. The virtual sand box—using a digital projector, a Microsoft Kinect camera, and a central processor—builds 3-D maps and contour lines on top of the terrain depicted in the sandbox. As the students move the sand, the camera measures the change and redraws the contour lines and map in real time. The sandbox could eventually be used to display rain and water flow to model dam breaches, flooding, and lava flow.

UT geography graduate student Zachary Merrill (right) discusses how different sensors attached to an unmanned aerial vehicle are used to collect imagery and elevation data.

UT geography graduate student Zachary Merrill (right) discusses how different sensors attached to an unmanned aerial vehicle are used to collect imagery and elevation data.

Landolt and Merrill also set up an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, to show how it helps geographers collect data such as aerial imagery to monitor changes and study sites. Researchers can use the imagery to create 3-D models of terrain to better simulate flooding or monitor how much earth has been moved in mining operations.

The duo demonstrated how a Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) scanner generates detailed 3-D models for monitoring situations including landslides, vegetation growth, and forest canopy.

Kurt Butefish, Tennessee Geographic Alliance coordinator who is based in the Department of Geography, talked with Morgan County School System teachers about ways to increase the teaching of geography in the district.

Also participating in the fair was Erin Kelbly, of the UT Office of Sustainability, who gave examples of how she uses GIS and its wider application in her work.