County GIS Internships Empower High School Students, Community Pride

March 20, 2019
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How many high school students do you know getting paid to do GIS all summer? No coffee runs, phone answering, and social media all day for these interns! They’re doing valuable GIS work for their community.

The students at Monroe High School have an amazing opportunity to spend their summers working as paid interns for the County Planning Commission that began with a teacher’s interest in GIS.

The force behind this effort is Monroe High School science teacher, Russell Columbus. He started learning GIS about fifteen years ago, working with Wayne State University on an NSF grant looking at water quality. He attended a workshop (where he met Randy Raymond and other talented Michigan GIS folks) to learn how to build geospatial databases and collect data with his students. Columbus recalls making a guide for his students to follow that he jokingly named, “Databases in 1000 Steps or Less.”

His “GIS hobby,” as he called it, led him to the G.R.A.C.E. Project for two summer training days. Their bold vision to have internship-level experiences for students was exciting to Columbus. In fulfilling his grant obligation, he reached out to his friend, a former student’s father, at the County Planning Commission to secure internship spots.

“I just did what I thought I was supposed to do,” Columbus said. “I put up some flyers around school, ‘Paid Summer Internships in Technology Careers,’ had a meeting, and then six kids that first summer were working at the planning office and the River Raisin National Battlefield.” He realized that he had a model that was going to work.

The next summer, Columbus joined the teaching staff at the G.R.A.C.E. Project, and his now veteran interns returned to their summer posts to work and help train a new set of interns. Check out some of their work in this collection of Story Maps.

A Model That Works

As they hoped, the internship model at Monroe not only works but is replicable and sustainable. Columbus believes “you can do this anywhere you have a willing GIS office or business.”

Although he has been using GIS to enhance his science classes, the internship program is a unique effort. There are no GIS elective classes in his school. “These students weren’t necessarily advanced (AP) students, but they knew computers and were eager to work.”

For the internship program, students (aged 15 or older) apply in the spring for the upcoming summer assignment. Each student must complete 30 hours of prescribed online courses through Esri Academy Online Training on their own time before reporting for work. Students also have Mr. Columbus available for help along the way.

According to Charlie Fitzpatrick, Esri K-12 education manager, “Anyone with a ‘maintained product,’ qualifies to have access to online training resources for free, including $100 personal use licenses, School Bundles (free to all schools), and commercial products.” Any school interested should check out the Schools Mapping Software Bundle page. Individuals can check the training information or contact their system administrators.

The Monroe High School students commit to 120 hours of work each summer. Jeff Boudrie, GIS specialist at the Monroe County Community Planning & Engagement Department, oversees the student interns and has been very impressed with their work. He said, “We've been more successful using high school students. Mr. Columbus does an excellent job finding candidates for the program. He only sends me the best students. I've found the high school students to be more willing to take direction than the college interns that we've had in the past. The high school students have a better work ethic.”

Their first summer salaries were paid through the grant and returning interns were paid by the Planning Commission. 

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Monroe High School GIS Student Internship Model

Columbus shared, “Our community has a need that students can fill, saving county dollars and contributing to the community…keeping the money in our community. Our students are doing REAL GIS for their community.” According to Boudrie, student interns are doing “mostly parcel description mapping. We've also had them mapping historic farms, zoning cases, and recorded subdivision plats. I've even entrusted some students with editing the 911 GIS.”

When asked what is his favorite thing about working with these students, Boudrie said, “I think my favorite thing is when the kids figure out where their work fits in with society. Editing the 911 GIS is an easy one to see. That's a delicate and important database. People's lives could depend on its accuracy. Mapping parcels might not be so obvious to see at first. When they understand that it's linked to property taxes, and paying property tax is tied to the many necessary services we enjoy in society, that's when it gets interesting. The kids really begin to take pride in their work. They feel that what they are doing is important and they're right, it is important."

"The other thing I appreciate is that a student may not know what career they want to pursue when they begin working with us, or they're not interested in furthering their education after high school. Once they've worked with GIS and realize how many different careers and professions use GIS, they change their mind about furthering their education or they may get an idea about a career that they want to pursue.”

What’s Next?

Columbus is seeking next level grants and partnerships to continue this splendid work. Some students have translated their experiences into college scholarships. Others are enjoying being “needed by the county.” Any way you slice it, it’s a message to all geospatial professionals, 15 and older, that community is more inclusive than we might have imagined.

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