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GIS/GPS Geospatial Research Seminar to be offered at Liberty High in Fauquier Co.

Imagine high school students creating an evacuation plan for a small city. Or imagine students mapping and evaluating patterns of crime within their own community. Or imagine students identifying the best location for relocating bears in a national park with hiking trails.

The fact is you don’t have to imagine any of these scenarios because they have all already occurred – because a dual-enrollment course through James Madison University – and that course is coming to Liberty High School.

Beginning with the 2015-2016 school year, students at Liberty will have the opportunity to take a “GIS/GPS Geospatial Research Seminar” in a partnership with the College of Integrated Science and Technology (CISE) at JMU. For the first time, Liberty seniors and juniors may take a one-semester course on geographic information systems (GIS) and other geospatial technology while earning college credit from JMU.

“The course will focus on how to analyze and make decisions regarding geospatial information,” said Jill Found, Liberty history and social science teacher who will teach the course.

“That sounds vague, but GIS is exciting because it can be applied in so many different ways! We will spend much of our time focusing on how to collect geospatial data and using that data to make maps. The most important part, however, will be the analysis of that data and those maps, as students will use them to solve real-world problems.”

A key aspect of the program is a focus on local projects connecting students, technology and their community; students build spatial thinking and project management skills as they learn how to apply cutting-edge GIS analysis to local issues. 

Students in approximately 30 Virginia high schools already participating in the “Geospatial Semester,” as it is called at JMU, have created projects (like those listed above) that have included work with The Nature Conservancy, various city and local governmental agencies, and private businesses. Students have parlayed the experience into summer internships, job assignments in the military, and college majors that feature GIS.

Exactly what the course will look like at Liberty is unknown – not because of lack of planning or preparation, but rather by the design of the course. There are, of course, common components in the course, but also room for flexibility, and the Geospatial Semester encourages variation from school to school.

“I am excited to teach the course,” said Ms. Found, who will attend a two-day, JMU-led training at Colonial Heights this summer, “because it is a new way for me to teach students and a new way for students to learn. I get to spend the semester learning with my students about how to make sense of the world geospatially and use those understandings to solve real-world problems. The course is exciting because it is a full marriage of skill, content and real-world understanding.”

Students will learn GIS and GPS technologies and how they might be applied in a variety of fields. A primary emphasis is on problem-based learning where students get to tackle complicated, real-world issues that don’t necessarily have a “right” answer.

Students will have access to software that matches or exceeds what can be found in the professional workplace. In an article on the Geospatial Semester in THE Journal, author Jennifer Demski explained that students will be able “to input data on a particular subject into the software along with geographic information linked to that data.

The data is then displayed as icons on a map, allowing the user to get a spatial understanding of the numbers represented in the data. Users can input and view data from multiple sources simultaneously on a single map, with each source appearing as an independent layer of information, which allows them to identify trends or patterns across data types.”

She gave an example:  “If students wanted to see the correlation between bicycle lanes and bicycle safety, they might find data on bicycle accidents, on bicycle citations, and then on bicycle lane locations. They then could select the parameters they want to study, input the data, and create a map that demonstrates the density of incidents in each location. With this visual representation of the data on a density map, they can easily see any patterns that might suggest a relationship between bike lanes and bike safety.”

Students in the course will also have access to on-line feature services that allow them to create mobile applications to collect and map data with their smartphones.

Two JMU professors will make monthly visits to the seminar at Liberty High School and will administer two formal assessments – a midterm exam where students apply analysis techniques to solve a problem and a final exam where a student or pair of students choose a topic or issue of interest in which they use geospatial tools to investigate or synthesize a solution. In each exam, students will participate in a brief oral defense before the JMU professors.

Amy Acors, FCPS instructional supervisor of history and social science, who is working with JMU to bring the GIS/GPS Geospatial Research Seminar to the Fauquier County school division, said she was introduced to the way GIS technology can be used in classrooms at a Virginia Council of Social Studies Conference in the fall.

With the encouragement of Dr. David Jeck, division superintendent, and Dr. Sandra Mitchell, associate superintendent for instruction, and the approval of the School Board, the course became a reality here because of its ability to allow FCPS students to practice 21st-century skills.

“Schools across Virginia are using GIS even with elementary and middle school students to make data come alive,” Acors said. “Often we are told that we are training students for jobs that don’t even exist yet, and GIS is the type of course that pushes students into a skill set that will be demanded of them in the future. We are very lucky to work in a school system where everyone was on board with trying to bring this type of experience to our students. With the support of [Liberty Principal Sam] Cox and his staff at Liberty, we are able to make this a reality.”

The students with whom Found has talked about the new class are interested in it, she said, because of all the different potential applications of the skills.

“GIS skills are useful in so many industries and professions today – from archaeology to criminal justice,” she said. “I think getting to learn something so obviously useful in a hands-on environment gets a lot of enthusiasm from students.”

Drew Fioranelli, Fauquier County GIS Director, said he sees great value in a course such as this.
“A career in GIS will open doors which students often thought impossible.  No matter what your career of choice is, I can guarantee you GIS will play a role, as GIS is one of the fastest-growing career paths in the professional world today.”

Acors said a sufficient number of students at Liberty are already interested in this new course to make it viable in the coming school year, although which semester it will be offered has not been determined.

She is already looking toward future GIS courses. “I look forward to the expansion that we can do with this over the next couple years at the other high schools and with other disciplines,” she said.

Students who are interested in taking the new GIS/GPS Geospatial Research Seminar in school year 2015-2016 should contact their guidance counselor.

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