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Schools Turn to Geospatial Tech Lessons to Engage Students in STEM

geospatial technology During his junior year at Heritage High School, John Paine enrolled in a class called Geospatial Semester. He had no idea what it was about, but he thought "the name sounded cool."

Turns out it was a program that introduces students to geospatial thinking and technology, as part of an effort to combine hands-on science lessons with emerging technology.

The Geospatial Semester originated at James Madison University in Virginia, where faculty guide high school students through projects and award them college credit upon completion.

Now, the program is poised for a major shift. The National Science Foundation has awarded a $2 million grant to James Madison, Northwestern University, and the Chicago public schools to implement the program in the 370,000-student school system, the nation's third-largest.

During his time in the Geospatial Semester class, Paine worked on a project that was focused on the sedimentation buildup in the lake in his neighborhood. He said that the pollution in the lake was an eyesore and a threat to the local wildlife, so he wanted to alert the homeowners' association in his community. He got on a boat, recorded the sedimentation in the area using a radar and used the GIS software to create a 3D map to show where the sedimentation should and shouldn't be.

"It was something I was really proud of," he said. "It could actually benefit the community."

Paine, who graduated from the Loudon County, Va., school district, will be attending James Madison University this fall, majoring in geographic science.

"I fell in love with it," he said. "There are so many opportunities that it opens to you. I've already met numerous people who will connect me to jobs and internships. With GIS, you're going to get a job for it."

Bob Kolvoord, dean of the College of Integrated Science and Engineering at JMU, said that students who enroll in the program develop an understanding of spatial concepts and refine their critical thinking skills while using geographic information systems technology to solve problems within their community.

This is a technology that "is all around us," Kolvoord said, "but nobody really notices it. The goal is that students will learn about the cutting-edge technology by using it to solve problems that matter to them."

Data Visualization

Geographic information systems, or GIS, is a software program that gathers, manages and analyzes data, and then organizes layers of information into visualizations like maps. GIS can use information provided by GPS satellites. It's the same technology people rely on when they use their phones to locate the nearest coffee shop, when they check an online weather map or upload photos to social media. The JMU program is an effort to design classroom lessons from technology that will engage students and deepen their understanding of science.

One of the goals of this type of problem-based instruction is to give students more freedom to shape their learning through projects of their choosing. They have the opportunity to explore and focus on what's important to them, and choose topics that they want to work on for the final project, Kolvoord said. 

The program, which started in 2005, is currently a partnership between James Madison University and about 20 school districts in Virginia. The students are dual-enrolled with James Madison University and receive college credit for the class. JMU faculty meet with teachers and students and help guide instruction and student projects.

This summer, 17 high school teachers at seven Chicago public schools are participating in workshops where they learn about the basics of GIS, how to use the software and how they can use it in the classroom. Because the program is meant to be locally supported, Chicago district officials and JMU are still looking for university faculty that can support the school system's teachers.

'A More Integrated Form of Teaching'

Carol O'Donnell, director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, said problem- and project-based programs like Geospatial Semester are part of a push toward "authentic" learning and experiences, which students can gain by understanding STEM topics as "an interdisciplinary learning opportunity."

She also saw the influence of the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by several states, are encouraging new, more in-depth approaches to teaching the subject, O'Donnell said. The standards ask students to analyze evidence and understand scientific phenomena, rather than memorize facts in isolation.

"The new standards are pushing a more integrated form of teaching--and not just in STEM," O'Donnell said. "Finding a way to engage students is the focus of the next generation of teachers."

The program differs from other hands-on learning programs, like makerspaces, because geospatial technology lets the students work on problems at different "scales," immersed in different kinds of projects, Kolvoord said. A project could be focused on something as hyperlocal as traffic on school grounds or as global as children's health around the world, he said.

"You can essentially fit the world into your computer."

Instead of taking a test at the end of the program, students give a final project presentation, where they face JMU faculty who will ask them about their project. 

Paine said the geospatial curriculum was different than his Advanced Placement classes, in that "there's no memorization. It's more hands-on. There's no taking notes."

While she agreed that students can demonstrate science knowledge through means other than tests, O'Donnell said that assessments can still play an important part of gauging student learning. It helps school leaders know that "cognitively what they're learning will stick," she said.

Kolvoord said in an effort to measure the success of the program, he and other JMU faculty are using the final projects as evidence of the learning they'd like to see, in areas that include spatial thinking, critical thinking and the capability to use GIS technology. He and his team also conduct research to detect if there's an improvement in students' spatial thinking and reasoning skills, and their ability to use GIS technology. Improving those skills can better prepare them for STEM careers, Kolvoord said.

That's an important measure for gauging the program's success, said O'Donnell. 

"Whatever we do in schools still have to demonstrate impact and prepare students for college and careers," she said.

Finding Their Passion in GIS

In Loudoun County Public Schools, around 300 students take the course every year, according to Michael Wagner, the GIS lead teacher for the 82,000-student district. 

Some students get internships after high school in companies that use GIS, or end up majoring in related subjects in college after participating in the program, said Wagner, who has taught the course for 13 years.

"I've had a couple of students who have found their passion in GIS or incorporated it is a minor as a result of taking the Geospatial Semester," said Katelyn Chadwick, Freedom High School teacher in the district.

JMU is also doing research to look at how teachers' attitudes and practices change as they use the technology. Teachers' practices will be a big focus of the research on the Chicago project, Kolvoord said.

"I got to teach in a different way than I would with chemistry," said Chadwick, who is a chemistry teacher by training. 

"With Geospatial Semester, the projects can be business, environmental, medical--basically anything," she said. "That really lets my creativity come out, and lets my students' creativity come out, too."

Photo: A Virginia public school student presents her Geospatial Semester project at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency GIS Fair. -- Erica J. Knight/NGA Office of Corporate Communications. 


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