Ballroom D looks like any other windowless ballroom in any other convention hotel -- except it's tricked out with giant cardboard cutouts of cartoon forests and animals, and flat-panel computer screens.
Welcome to high-tech geography camp.
"We're making a map to show where there's suitable pastures for cattle and sheep to go and graze and live when there's an emergency," says 11-year-old Rosemary Norheim of Seattle.
Rosemary is working with her partner on the first assignment: drawing a digital map to show which parts of the San Juan National Forest in Colorado are safe for grazing animals. She's using software that's a version of what her father, an environmental research scientist, uses in his work.
The geography camp was part of a recent conference that hosted about 13,000 digital mapping experts in San Diego. The cartographers, geographers, social scientists and city planners in attendance create and use sophisticated digital mapping technologies for all manner of things: to respond to emergencies, to improve mass transit services, to chart rates of disease in communities. But this camp was for their children.
Learning High-Tech Mapping
Making a digital map, the class leaders say, is like making a sandwich -- a layering of pictures and data. Instructor Colin Childs says that while children grow up today with GPS in the car, they need to learn how those maps get made.
"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 doing analysis," Childs says.
This is 5th-grader Kovid Tallum's second year at camp. His favorite aspect of this mapmaking process is personalizing it.
"For me, what I like most is 'legend,' " Kovid says. "You get to change everything on the map. Just one color can change the whole map."
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, yellow and green, and everyone's virtually navigating the digital mountain landscape with their mouse.
Making Mapping Relevant
Waiting in the wings for his son is Jason Duke, 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 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
He says the disaster is the perfect reason for his kids to learn what he does -- and why maps are so important.
"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," Duke says. "Of course, you can show your children a lot, but they always believe you more when it comes from somewhere else."
And maybe they respect you more, too. Duke's 9-year-old son, Carter, says, "Now I know why he's so tired when he gets home."