Salamanca STEAM program offers GIS mapping to districts on indigenous territories

A Salamanca STEAM student discusses GIS mapping with STEAM coordinator Aaron Straus (left) and teacher Dr. Graham Hayes.

SALAMANCA — For the past few years, Salamanca High School's Geographic Information Systems (GIS) class has utilized service-learning experiences to support student inquiry and address community needs.

“The Seneca Nation and Cattaraugus County are currently using GIS. It is also being considered for use by the local New York State Department of Transportation office and the City of Salamanca Public Works Department,” said Aaron Straus, district STEAM coordinator. “In GIS class, students are exposed to ideas and practical skills to apply this technology for public works projects.”

In 2020, when the pandemic hit, Salamanca utilized GIS to map households without Internet access at home and determined which locations the district could send a Wi-Fi enabled hotspot to student homes.

“We downloaded 30m Digital Elevation Data (DEM) from the USDA Data Gateway data portal and cell tower data from ArcGIS Online,” explained Dr. Graham Hayes, head of the GIS program.

Using 3D Visibility Analysis, Graham said the software could “see” what areas of the map were within line-of-sight paths between student homes and nearby cell towers. Because of the variability of the natural terrain within the district, some students could not be served through cell tower connections.

“Instead, thoughtfully positioned school buses with Wi-Fi hotspots were stationed across the school district to serve families without cell tower access,” he said.

Sophomore Carson Mohr recently completed a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) project involving mapping trails in Red Rock Canyon near Las Vegas, Nev. Carson spoke about the possibility of doing the same service project for the many overgrown or unkept hiking trails surrounding Salamanca.

“I spoke with Dr. Hayes and Mr. Straus about modifying/replicating this project to incorporate local terrain and trails in support of the local tourism industry,” said Mohr.

Mohr said they can download NYS DEC trails data from the NYS GIS Clearinghouse, but the many trails in the dataset are only on state lands.

“The trail behind Highland Park is not present, nor is the start of the McGee Trail,” he said.

“Those trails could be researched, mapped with GPS, and loaded into a local online trail map.”

Last school year, several GIS students engaged in significant community service projects. Sophomore Mitch Schnaufer evaluated the spatial distribution of fire stations in Cattaraugus County compared to population density and drive time analysis surrounding each fire station. “Through my hands-on, in-class lessons, I identified three areas with growing populations outside a 20-minute drive time from any existing fire station,” he said. “I proposed alternative locations for new fire stations that would cover both new and established populations.”

Mitch’s brother Matthew Schnaufer applied a spatial process that identifies the three closest neighbors to a given address — a method coined by Hayes as “Know Your Three” — for each resident to know the three closest people they could call for help.

“This analysis can be used to help communities keep tabs on the elderly, people without reliable transportation, or moms in need of childcare,” said Matthew Schnaufer. “Sports team families could also use this to identify possible ride-sharing opportunities for getting athletes to games or practices.”

NOW, THE DISTRICT recently asked the STEAM department to assist with another opportunity for community service, which could have positive implications for other under-resourced students and school districts on indigenous territories for years to map how many Salamanca students reside within the boundary of Seneca Nation Territory.

The NYS Education Department has historically provided funding to the Salamanca City Central School District and other indigenous districts through a formula established in 1970 via NYS-administered Title IV national grant.

“The grant provides funding to the (district) based on both our population and location on indigenous territory,” said Superintendent Robert Breidenstein. “The payment rate is based on the number of students inside and outside the Seneca Nation’s Sovereign Territory and students attending the district.”

Verification of the student population count is time-consuming and slow. Consequently, payment to indigenous districts from the state can be delayed upwards of 18 months. For funding to Salamanca schools, a district official said a GIS map would help “expedite payments to the district.”

Hayes quickly got to work using “sanitized” student address data — data with no personally identifiable information — to compute the total count of students living within the Nation’s territory.

“GIS technology works by linking digital map layers (geography) with information from different database tables,” he said as he clicked on layers of the SCCSD resident map.

Hayes said the combined data allows questions to be asked of the database and the results are displayed or highlighted on the map, likening the system to the layers of an onion, in which each layer represents a different data category.

“For example, addresses, territory boundaries and land-use can all be displayed as overlays to reveal the spatial relationships of the different datasets or other related information,” he explained. “In our case, we used the GIS to map the numbers of Indigenous students enrolled in SCCSD and living within the territory.”

While this work was performed in January, Hayes had each of his GIS class students perform the same analysis to better understand this efficient application of digital map overlay.

“Each address point which falls within the Nation polygon is tagged as ‘INSIDE’ while all those address points which are not within the Territory Polygon are tagged as ‘OUTSIDE,’” he said.

A simple record count yields the total number of students in and out of the territory. The resulting records were exported to Excel for easy sorting, grouping and formatting for delivery to the State Department of Education.

In addition, the STEAM department has received permission to offer this service to all other school districts in New York which serve Native learners. District officials state that using technology to help those in need is part of what makes our STEAM education unique.

“When we hired Dr. Hayes to teach GIS for our STEAM program, I was excited to learn about this ‘new’ information technology tool he has applied during his almost 40-year career in GIS,” said Straus as he scrolled through several of the student's finished mapping projects. “However, when he presented a more detailed overview of the full service-learning capability of the technology, I was utterly amazed at the regional scope of applications for our community and sister districts on indigenous territory."

If schools do not have GIS as a curriculum offering at this time, Salamanca High School GIS students will perform the overlay tasks for those districts free of charge as a practical and impactful community service project.

“We are very supportive of this service project,” Breidenstein said. “Any way we can help other districts secure adequate fundings for their indigenous pupils while facilitating technology learning for our students is a win for Salamanca.”

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