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Thirteen thousand cartographers, geographers, social scientists and city planners descended on San Diego last week for a conference on digital mapping. They create and use sophisticated mapping technology for all manner of things these days to respond to emergencies, improve mass transit services, chart rates of disease in communities.

The children of the conference attendees were also in on the learning experience, as Lisa Napoli reports.

LISA NAPOLI: Ballroom D looks like any other windowless ballroom in any other convention hotel...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NAPOLI: ...except for the fact that it's tricked out with giant, cardboard cutouts of cartoon forests and animals, and flat-panel computer screens. Welcome to high-tech geography camp.

Ms. ROSEMARY NORHEIM: We're making a map to show where there's suitable pastures for cattle and sheep...

Unidentified Child: For cattle and sheep.

Ms. NORHEIM: ...to go and graze and live when there's an emergency.

NAPOLI: Eleven-year-old Rosemary Norheim of Seattle is working with her partner through the first assignment: drawing a digital map to show which parts of the San Juan National Forest in Colorado are safe for grazing animals. This software is a version of what her father, an environmental research scientist, uses in his work.

Making a digital map, the class leaders say, is like making a sandwich -a layering of pictures and data. Instructor Colin Childs says while children grow up today with GPS in the car, they need to learn how those maps get made.

Mr. COLIN CHILDS (Instructor, Digital Mapping Class): It's our job to try and build the connection between what they use these days, together with what they should know about map reading and about the - the kind of doing analysis and stuff, and asking questions.

NAPOLI: This is fifth grader Kovid Tallum's second year at camp. His favorite aspect of this map-making process is personalizing it.

Mr. KOVID TALLUM: For me, most of all what I like is the legend. You get to change everything on the map with - just one color can change the whole map.

NAPOLI: After a snack break, Kovid and the other kids are clicking through the prompts on their screens for their next assignment: to reconstruct Mount St. Helens before its eruption.

Using 3-D mapping technology and a worksheet, they build out the layers of the volcano. Soon, all the computer screens are lighting up bright orange and yellow and green, and everyone's virtually navigating the digital mountain landscape with their mouse.

Mr. TALLUM: Oh, so that would be the - this would be the forest and that would be the (unintelligible) river.

Unidentified Woman: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TALLUM: Okay. Now, we can see the actual elevations here. Oh, so that would be the lowest of what they're seeing. This little strip of yellow over here is the second lowest.

NAPOLI: Waiting in the wings for his sons is Jason Duke. He's a geographer with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Tennessee. Here at the conference, he's presented maps he's made using this kind of technology, to chart the fate of birds affected by the spill in the Gulf.

He said the disaster is the perfect reason for his kids to learn what he does and why maps are so important.

Mr. JASON DUKE (Geographer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): Everything now is so visual. Everything has a map - from MapQuest to Google Maps to all the maps we're producing with this software for the oil spill. And of course, you can show your children a lot, but they always believe you more when it comes from someone else.

NAPOLI: And maybe they respect you more, too. Here's Duke's 9-year-old son, Carter.

CARTER: Now I know why he's so tired when he gets home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NAPOLI: For NPR News, I'm Lisa Napoli.

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