Students in Bahamas

Leah Keith-Houle’s Red Bank High School students are learning to map with a purpose.  Unlike most mappers who are white males between 30-45 years old, Keith-Houle’s students are often young black women and men who are 16 years old.  They tested their skills when they formed a Humanitarian Outreach Team (HOT) for OpenStreetMap (OSM).  With this open source program, they’ve mapped Padang, Indonesia, for tsunami preparedness and Washington, Illinois, for tornado first responders.

As result of her passion for “real world science,” Keith-Houle, head of the RBHS Science Department, was selected to receive a grant made possible by the national nonprofit Fund for Teachers in partnership with the Public Education Foundation.  More than 500 proposals were submitted by teachers and only 20 were chosen in Hamilton County.

In spring 2014, Keith-Houle’s students built a base map of San Salvador, Bahamas, but she wanted to use the grant to collect a lot more information.  She was accepted as a student in the summer Tropical Island Ecology and Geology course offered at UTC.  In her appeal for funding, she explained the urgency.

“Addressing is desperately needed; people die in the U.S. Virgin Islands because the addressing is so terrible. Case in point, ambulance drivers cannot find addresses of homes and heart attack and stroke victims unless someone stands in the road to direct them,” Keith-Houle wrote. “No mail delivery – you go to the post office and there is no UPS or FedEx delivery due to the poor addressing. If a hurricane takes a sign – the people that live in that community make a sign and name the road what they want to call it.”

Leah Keith-Houle in front of School Bus

Keith-Houle imagined walking around San Salvador, Bahamas, to get a better understanding of the location of houses, lakes, the sea shore, wetlands—the height of buildings.  She did all that and she knocked on the door of a school where she was welcomed.

“San Salvador High School is the school Leah worked with,” said Dr. Dawn Ford, Executive Director of the Walker Center for Teaching and Learning and adjunct faculty for the Biology and Environmental Sciences Department at UTC.  “Having an emergency response background myself, I see the value in the mapping, especially if a hurricane posed such a threat that all people of the island needed to evacuate or if there was a rescue operation after an event.  It’s a small community, so the locals know where people live, but if there was a natural disaster, the locals may not be able to help.”

Keith-Houle was asked to teach the San Salvador High School students to map without technology and to polish their English.  She whipped up a week’s worth of lesson plans and made a personal connection with the warm, friendly people.  At the end, the students wrote to her Red Bank students, literally wrote them letters, about their lives.  Keith-Houle will have her students write back, in a throwback to pen-pal days.  She is hoping her students will learn the software, finish the mapping, and produce a hard copy for the students at the school and others by October.

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