She was in the middle of teaching a GIS workshop when Calvin senior Emma DeVries realized that all of her students had graduate degrees. DeVries and Calvin geography professor Jason VanHorn spent the January interim in Ethiopia teaching that nation’s geographers how to use geographic information systems (GIS) software.
“As a young woman from America, to come and teach these masters and PhDs in geography, it was very stretching for me and very challenging—but it was also very moving,” said DeVries, a geography, geology and environmental studies and Spanish major.
DeVries and VanHorn were in the country to assist Calvin geography professor Jonathan Bascom with his sabbatical project. Funded by a Fulbright Research Grant, Bascom is creating a digital atlas of Ethiopia, and he built the GIS workshops into the project. VanHorn agreed to teach them, and DeVries signed on as his teaching assistant. They landed a grant from the Kuyers Foundation for Christian Teaching and Learning to underwrite their travel and workshop expenses.
Before they joined Bascom in Ethiopia, DeVries and VanHorn spent significant time in the GIS lab, crunching data from the Ethiopian census—population demographics, economic data—as well as physical data (digital elevation models) and data on health, religion, literacy and education. The data would become part of the digital atlas and, they hoped, a part of the Ethiopian teaching arsenal. Educators in Ethiopia often don’t have access to information about their own country, DeVries said: “Ethiopia is an impoverished country; part of the poverty is data poverty.”
In January, DeVries and VanHorn flew to Addis Ababa, where they spent a couple of days getting oriented to the country and meeting officials at the U.S. Embassy, the funders of the workshop. They then moved on to Bahir Dar, where they met up with Bascom, his family and his planning committee. In preparation for the workshop, the embassy built a GIS workshop at Bahir Dar University, featuring 24 new computers with ArcGIS 10 software. “The finest geospatial lab of any university in the country … ,” DeVries described it. “This technology was a huge bonus for this university.”
Twenty-four geography professors from universities throughout Ethiopia attended the GIS workshop—a phenomenon that DeVries credits to Bascom’s skills in networking. Some workshop participants had never touched GIS software before. Others had some degree of knowledge of the system. “To build this atlas, we didn’t just want GIS experts,” DeVries said. “We wanted geographers who could bring the expertise of their subfield to this project. … I mostly led the beginners and Jason led the advanced learners.”
As the geographers progressed in their GIS skills, DeVries enjoyed listening to their insights on their work. They would explain how their maps showed that the country was nomadic or agricultural or suited to a particular crop. “I learned so much from all of them, in part because they were the subject of the geography,” she said.
DeVries had to draw on a wide range of skills to teach a group of credentialed geographers, said VanHorn. “She just shined and excelled and flourished in that context … . She took on responsibility to not only engage the faculty but lead them,” he said. “We were a team. Even though she had the title ‘teaching assistant,’ she was a key member of the team to provide leadership and even vision for what we were doing there.”