Innovative geospatial programs turn high schoolers into GIS pros

By Brittni Brown

When we think of GIS professionals, our thoughts often fall into one of two categories: first, the seasoned professionals that have been working with the technology since its infancy —essentially the "Yodas" of geographic information systems, or alternatively, the newly graduated techies behind amazing innovations we couldn’t have dreamed of a decade ago.

We rarely think of high school students — but, believe it or not, there are a number of young, motivated individuals that are not only learning GIS while completing their secondary education, but who are also applying their new skills to help solve today’s most significant problems.

Geospatial Semester

At Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia, students have the opportunity to participate in an innovative program called Geospatial Semester, a collaboration between Virginia high schools and the Integrated Science and Technology department atJames Madison University. As part of the program, students develop working relationships with professional agencies, assisting them in finding solutions to real-world problems. In 2012, students worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to identify wetland areas that fall within government easements. These locations are ideal for wetland conservation experiments, and for developing the plans needed to prepare for changing climate condition.

Several students have gone on to present their work at such prestigious events as the annual ESRI International User’s Conference, and to organizations including the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, local school boards and partner organizations.

Created by Dr. Bob Kolvoord, with the help of Ms. Kathryn Keranen, the Geospatial Semester was designed specifically to engage students in their final semesters of high school. The only requirement for the course is to be either a junior or senior; students are not required to be among the school's top performers to participate.

“The Geospatial Semester class appeals to a broad cross-section of students, often ones that haven’t had a lot of academic success. Interestingly, the open-ended nature of the Geospatial Semester draws in students who aren’t engaged by typical high school offerings (and sometimes really challenges students who are very successful in standard high school classes),” Dr. Kolvoord stated in a recent email exchange.

Students speak very highly of the course, often because of the way it differs from a traditional high school class, he explained. In this program, students are given a much greater level of autonomy and responsibility, particularly in their final project; as a result, the course functions as a transition between high school and whatever comes next, and many students continue to utilize their geospatial skills long after the course.

 “[Many] students move from the GSS directly into internships, and some have gone to work using their geospatial skills. Most students move on to higher education or the military, and some will follow a geospatial path, while others move into non-geospatial areas, but often use their geospatial skills to augment their work," Dr. Kolvoord wrote.

Students in the program receive college credit at JMU; nearly 3,000 students have earned college credit since the program began in 2005.

Launching a Career

In Rochester, other high school students are using GIS to tackle difficult social problems within their communities as part of GIS Scholars, working in collaboration with School Without Walls. The program is designed specifically to teach students how to perform professional, publishable GIS-based analysis, a marketable skill set that that could lead directly to a career in GIS.

Recently, this group of students worked on data analysis and map creation related to street-level information on crime, housing conditions, public transportation routes, schools and minority-owned businesses. Ultimately, this data will help answer important demographic and social questions about the city of Rochester, such as: to what conditions are young children exposed, as they walk every day to and from school? Where is the ideal location for new bus stops or small businesses? To work on these maps, GIS Scholars was awarded a grant of $50,000 by the city. Even more recently, they were subcontracted to work on discovering the locations of high impact corner stores for Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency.

For many students, opportunities like these would be beyond their reach if they had to pay college tuition to attain them. Through these innovative programs, however, they are acquiring the skills they need to move directly into well-paid positions in the geospatial industry, without the high cost and associated debt of a college degree. For those that do continue on to college, they begin their higher education with a considerable advantage, and an early focus on skill application that will serve them well in their future careers. Perhaps even more importantly, these students are also demonstrating that they can, even at their young age, make a significant contribution to solving some of society's most pressing problems.

Published Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

Written by Brittni Brown

Published in



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