NSF awards professor $1 million

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October 20, 2009

3:04 AM

Associate Professor of sociology Salvatore Saporito recently received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a database of school attendance boundaries for the country’s largest school districts.

The database, called the School Attendance Boundary Information System, will receive two years of funding from the grant. Saporito and his team of student researchers are working closely with Stuart Hamilton, program director for the Center for Geospatial Analysis, to map out school boundaries for hundreds of school districts in the U.S. using Geographic Information Systems, a digital mapping system.

The project has its roots in Saporito’s dissertation thesis.

“For me, [the project] was trying to determine which children decided to enroll in a public or private school, a magnet school or charter school, given, not only the quality of the school, but the composition of the children who lived in the school attendance boundary,” Saporito said.

As his data collection grew, other researchers encouraged Saporito to expand it into a national data infrastructure project.

The NSF grant will fund the project for the next two years. Data from 800 school districts will be collected and disseminated, representing about half of the districts in the nation.

SABINS connects school attendance boundaries with census data to create a representation of populations within school boundaries.

Researchers will be able to apply the data collected in this project to many fields including public policy and health. The data can be used for studies such as research on the impact of school boundaries on school inequality.

The Department of Agriculture will use SABINS to evaluate the subsidized lunch program, which could potentially cut costs for the government.

Saporito hopes to create an advisory board of experts and holding a conference for interested researchers to figure out how to expand the dataset to include more school districts and keep it continuous in the long run.

Undergraduate student researchers are heavily involved with the SABINS data collection. Roxanne Lepore ’10, Saporito’s research assistant, spends her time contacting school districts and trying to obtain the boundary shape files.

This is often difficult for her as school districts sometimes see the files as private property, while Saporito and Lepore claim that they are public information.

“This project has really given me an interest in intellectual property rights, because the whole mechanism behind, well, who owns this?” Lepore said. “It just shows that as technologies emerges, just specifically GIS, it’s fuzzy, and there’s a lot of room for clarity.”

With the grant, Saporito and his team hope that more students will get involved with the project. Saporito plans to employ two student researchers full time to help with data collection and to oversee other student researchers.

“Students are really going to take on ownership of the project,” Saporito said. “I wrote the grant around the notion of integrating undergraduates in research.”

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