Live and Learn in Lamjung

Students in Sahilitar mapping a bridge with GPS

Students in Sahilitar mapping a bridge with GPS

On July 13, Aarti and I stumbled up a precarious hillside path to our temporary home in Sahilitar, Lamjung District. With the help of a translator, we spent a week teaching 20 students at the Shree Gyanodaya Higher Secondary School how to think spatially, using GPS to map their community to this end. The students struggled at first to overcome a number of misconceptions: most had difficulty envisioning objects from a bird’s-eye view, and had not considered mapping as related to photography or math. We tailored our lessons to take advantage of the student’s skill with geometry, which they were in the process of learning during their regular school hours. Geometry is critical to cartography, so they picked up the basics more rapidly than we had initially expected based on their prior inexperience with maps. By the end of the training, they were able to confidently orient themselves North and South, to conceive of their community in geospatial terms, and were prepared to begin mapping online for Open Street Map (OSM).

Students did not immediately recognize a map of the world, nor of Nepal’s situation between India and China. They were quick to pick up on the geometry involved in the geographic coordinate system, which I explained as a more accurate and precise way to locate places remote from the viewer. The students seemed to appreciate the necessity of maps, but struggled somewhat with the process of drawing them. I showed them how objects on a map are depicted from a bird’s eye view, but even then many still drew the school compound in profile. To better explain the situation, I asked Aarti to sketch a picture of me standing face-to-face, and then walked down the stairs and stood beneath the balcony of the school where we held our class. Aarti demonstrated how my image had changed as a result of this top-down perspective, and the students seemed then to conceptualize the issue more clearly.

The students were incredibly enthusiastic about Google Earth. We asked them to use the pan and zoom tools to seek out Sahilitar, and then activated the geographic coordinate graticule. I believe this demonstrated the concept of latitude and longitude more clearly, but even so, many students continued to seek out their village by relative location (near x village or y city) rather than by the precise coordinates we had provided them with on Sunday. In hindsight it may have been unreasonable to expect the students to find Sahilitar via coordinates when confronted with such visually appealing images for the first time. It was encouraging to see them identifying geographic features from a bird’s eye perspective.

On Tuesday, some of the students needed a refresher course on latitude and longitude, but they understood the basics of cartography. The children were able to quickly redraw in bird’s-eye perspective a profile view of a cluster of buildings. When asked the easiest way to view all of their community, they responded that looking down on it from a mountaintop would provide the most complete perspective, and appreciated that their community would appear distorted from this vantage. None of them intuitively grasped the concept of GPS mapping, as there is no word in Nepali for “satellite.” I gradually guided them through an abridged history of remote sensing, indicating that mountain-views gave way to mapping via aerial photography with cameras attached to birds, kites, planes, and satellites (this required a lengthier explanation by the translator). To describe how our GPS devices could receive satellite signals, I used the analogy of sea floor mapping with coils of rope, which most of them could understand without much difficulty. I indicated that satellite signals reach closer geographic points more swiftly than distant points, just as sound waves (“shouting”) reach nearer locations more swiftly than remote locations. The GPS reads these waves from several satellites to determine its location. We split the students into two groups, each equipped with a mobile GPS, and recorded the locations of 5 buildings. The students were excited by the exercise, and appeared disappointed when we ended the class without mapping the coordinates.

On Wednesday, we began by mapping on the whiteboard the coordinates that we had recorded the previous day. We did not use google earth because we had no access to power, and because at that point the students seemed to grasp the concepts more easily when we drew them by hand. Some excelled at locating the appropriate place for the coordinates within the decimal degree grid we drew. The students from groups one and two pinpointed their coordinates on the graph, and found that their locations were almost identical. Our translator explained that what little variation remained probably owed to slight differences in the student’s placement as they used the two GPS devices, and to cloud interference with the satellite signals. Afterwards, we asked the students to make certain conclusions about their real community based on the graphical representation (i.e. which direction is x building from y building?), and to our satisfaction they performed this task easily.

On Thursday, we requested that the students enter their coordinates on Google Earth, and to draw polygons and lines to represent buildings and roads, respectively. The head of the Peace Innovation program then organized a video conference call with researchers from Kathmandu Living Labs, who explained OSM to the students in Nepali, and excited them about mapping. We returned to Google Earth and did some more digitizing in preparation for work on OSM. We showed the students how to calculate the distance of paths drawn in Google Earth, and used the “time warp” Landsat imagery from 2009 to identify buildings that had been constructed in the last 5 years. Finally, we conveyed that any maps drawn in OSM (made with a similar procedure to Google Earth) would be available to the entire world, and would essentially be the Internet face of Sahilitar. They seemed to appreciate the gravity of the situation and to enjoy the responsibility.Unfortunately, issues with the internet connection prevented us from immediately transitioning to work on OSM.

To complete the project, Peace Innovation labs intends to train a local schoolteacher how to use the online program in late August. Aarti and I did not teach the students GIS, and do not recommend that PIL attempt to do so in the near future; it requires higher computer literacy and we feel that it is not a relevant tool for students at this stage in their studies. Peace Innovation has identified promising youths and will connect them to various opportunities with organizations like Kathmandu Living Labs and ICIMOD, which are already conducting the type of trainings and research that I hope KU School of Arts will soon pursue. Through this procedure, Peace Innovation Labs and similar groups can diffuse technical skills and knowledge from the Kathmandu Valley to the rural majority of the country.


  1. Justin DeShazor says:

    Hey Peter! This seems to have been an incredibly rewarding week! I really enjoyed reading about how you tailored your lessons for your young audience, while also managing to employ complex technologies and complete your work in a sometimes-uncooperative environment. With you back on campus, I look forward to swapping stories with you in the near future!