Why mentoring matters: How Azavea and others are improving GIS education

December 16, 2015

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Azavea designs initiatives and chooses projects that align with their business principles: to emphasize social responsibility and sustainability as much as profitability. That’s part of their being a B-corporation and applying geospatial technologies to make a social impact, including seeking and supporting clients that are non-profit organizations. Completed Azavea projects such as PhillyHistory, DistrictBuilder and OpenTreeMap are examples that characterize these principles. Developing and sharing OS software products such as GeoTrellis, designed to make spatial analysis functionality more widely available, further embodies their notions of sharing their technological expertise with others.

With their Summer of Maps program, first offered in 2012, Azavea has systematically added undergraduate and graduate students into this cycle. Students learn to appreciate the types of projects that non-profits might undertake, see how they frame their questions, and experience what it would be like to work with and for such an organization. Azavea imagined it would be an attractive and popular opportunity for students. Could they have anticipated that in the summer of 2015, there would be 175 applicants for 3 positions? 175! 3! Getting a position is like winning the geospatial job lottery.  

Many of the candidates not chosen for a summer spot with Azavea are competent, capable and eager to learn and contribute. What keeps Azavea’s CEO, Robert Cheetham, from expanding the program is his desire to match the energy contributed by the summer mappers with the availability of company staff. These positions aren’t just regular summer GIS jobs. Azavea sets out to create a “high-quality first professional experience” for the students, and for a company its size, that necessarily means a small set of students.

Each “Fellow” works on two different projects, and they are involved with every aspect of project management and execution: scoping the work, preparing budgets, performing analyses, managing timelines and preparing presentations. Throughout, they have seasoned professionals modeling best practices, giving them constructive and regular feedback, and pointing them in the right direction.

Cost of learning to use some GIS software? $59.95 for a tutorial book and $5 for a bottle of headache medicine.

Cost of building your GIS expertise during three months of individualized mentoring by senior staff? Priceless.

Effective mentoring blends advice, training, modeling, supporting and guiding. Mentoring can make the difference between barely and anxiously managing to scrape through the tasks for a single assignment versus excited dedication to a whole new career. All fields have their domain-specific knowledge areas, and all technologies have their idiosyncratic details. But someone who has been asked to “apply geospatial technologies to solve (or at least understand) a problem” might be required to know something about relational databases, map projections, coordinate systems, satellite ephemerides, digital image processing, obscure and possibly obsolete data compression formats, statistics, the modifiable areal unit problem, software licensing, web services and conventions of cartographic representation, not to mention spatial analysis and principles of geography and spatial thinking. For novices seeking to acquire substantial skills and knowledge in the geospatial domain, this is not a weekend workshop or one-semester class — which is why the role of mentoring is such a compelling one in this field. It harkens back to the days of being an apprentice to learn a trade. You weren’t expected to know it all at the beginning but you were expected to watch, learn, and practice, working alongside those who had the experience.

Any such program has its abusers. Months spent only pounding steel on an anvil is to a blacksmith apprentice what months spent only digitizing is to many GIS interns: hours that can be cruel and demoralizing. But done well, learning through an apprenticeship can be highly successful.

At Washington College in Maryland, the GIS Program has fully adopted and implemented this model, including its language. Undergraduate students serve at different levels of apprentice and subsequently earn their way up through the ranks to become journeymen and journeymen leaders, all together forming a community guild. Director Stewart Bruce deliberately seeks first-year students to join as junior apprentices because he’s seen how the students grow in the program, acquiring competence and confidence over the years, and become loyal and valuable employees. Though their program has grown to include professional staff as well, the students are what really have allowed their capacity to expand, as the more experienced ones mentor the less so. Each year the program loses approximately 20 seniors to graduation, and the geospatial professional world gains those highly-qualified students.

Now with funding from the Verizon Foundation, Bruce has also extended the guild model to provide geospatial opportunities for local youth. The METS Guild of Chestertown links weekend training for GIS with 3D visualization, gaming and web design, a seductive combination for many middle-school children. Eventually, Bruce envisions, these students may consider studying at Washington College itself, and the pipeline continues.

Mentoring models have also been implemented to help school districts and teachers take advantage of software donations. For example, last year Esri announced it would provide K-12 schools in the US with open access to its web-based mapping system, ArcGIS Online, through the national ConnectED initiative. But without knowing how to use GIS to support their instruction and students’ learning, the donation could be as helpful to a given teacher as handing them an anvil and a bunch of steel. To address these gaps, the American Association of Geographers and Esri have collaborated on the GeoMentors program, to facilitate connecting experts interested in volunteering their help with teachers in classrooms who are eager to begin learning.

The value of mentoring is undeniably powerful, but it is challenging to scale it up to benefit larger audiences. Relying on active professionals volunteering their time is not a sustainable practice, but it can work while other learning networks are established. Azavea hopes to increase their Summer of Maps’ capacity by securing additional program sponsorship and then incorporating the efforts of additional geospatial professionals as new mentors, resulting in more non-profits being served and continued high-impact learning experiences for more students.

Tis the season to think of others. If you have ideas and examples to share about the practice of mentoring within the world of geospatial technologies, share them with me —diana.sinton@directionsmag.com — and we may follow up with another article in the new year. 


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