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Waubun kids pioneer use of GPS maps to charter Tamarac

Kristopher Donner and Jacob Fatz

Two Waubun students are raising eyebrows throughout the country as they pave a new way to use GPS (global positioning system) and GIS (geographic information system) technology.

Jacob Fatz, a sophomore and Kristopher Donner, a junior at Waubun High School, are being called teenage scientists, as they are knee-deep in a project that has them literally mapping out the Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge for all the world to see.

"We went out to Tamarac last September," said Fatz, who is working on the 4H project for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Fatz, Donner and three Moorhead students make up a student team led by University of Minnesota Assistant Professor and American Indian Youth Program Coordinator Joe Courneya.

Their goal for the pilot program is to teach young, technology driven students how to use GPS-GIS software and then to use those skills in the field.

"They (Tamarac officials) said they needed help in keeping inventory of their assets," said Fatz, "so we went out and started plotting the points where there were landmarks, restrooms, signs ... anything important."

By using iPad and iPhone technology (which they supplemented with a GPS unit that attaches to the devices) the students were able to also get pictures of each landmark to link with the GPS coordinates.

"So let's say you want to go look at the Native American burial grounds," explained Donner, "you have the option of being able to click on that point and it would bring up a picture of it too."

With a number of landmarks plotted and coordinates secured with latitude and longitude, the students now have what they need to begin creating the actual maps for Tamarac -- maps that will be used to keep track of their assets and what shape their assets are in.

This will allow refuge officials to more accurately assess what they need for funding.

Small teams of students in four states (Minnesota, Iowa, New York and Washington) are all working on this project, but it was Minnesota's group that came forward with a viable way of completing the project with the iPhones and IPads.

"They were the only youth from the program to use this as a 21st century way of collection data," said Courneya, adding that soon not only will Tamarac Refuge have a comprehensive map of its assets, but people will also be able to go on sites like Google Earth and view the places geotagged by Fatz, Donner and their teammates.

This achievement has 4H and other organizations sitting up and taking notice, as Fatz and Donner not only presented their findings at a 4H conference in Omaha last fall, but are now being flown to Atlanta, where they will also give a presentation at the North America Fish & Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference on March 15, during which time they'll also be receiving an award for their project's success.

Courneya says the youth that get involved with this kind of technology master it far quicker than adults can.

"Because these kids grew up with handheld technology, I can teach them in one hour what it would take me all day to teach adults," said Courneya, "and they'll retain so much more of it, too."

"It's something that's natural to me and I enjoy," said Fatz, "I have these skills and talents, why not go out and share them with other people? Why would I want to let it just sit on my lap when I could be helping people with it?"

According to Courneya, Fatz and Donner aren't just helping map out the country's greatest natural resources, but they're potentially also helping themselves.

"If they so choose to go into this field, they would have their pick of jobs in whatever area they're interested in," said Courneya, adding that GPS-GSI technology is being incorporated into fields such as medicine, engineering for water management, public transportation and countless other fields.

"And we just don't have the skilled employees to fill those jobs," said Courneya.

But Fatz and Donner may be helping to change that, too, as next year they will begin mentoring other 4H students across the country who will continue to expand this project in other natural lands.

Eventually, Courneya says they'd like to delve into turning their project into an app for smart phones and other wireless devices.

In the meantime, Fatz and Donner will also be assisting in the Nature of Technology camp that initially got the two interested in the field a few years ago, put on by the Tribal College and Minnesota 4H extension office, which teaches kids all about the ground-breaking world of GPS-GSI technology.

The pair has applied to become part of a national 4H GIS team, which would take them San Diego in July.

"So they're traveling and becoming leaders in GIS and GPS all from that small start in Waubun, Minnesota," laughed Courneya.

"People have always kind of said I was made for big things or however you want to put it, so this isn't surprising for me," said Fatz, "Everyone is made for big things, this is just my thing."