The GeoSpatial Semester

Does the United States have enough properly equipped airports to monitor all of its borders with drones? Where are the cheapest areas in Iowa to drill water wells based on aquifer levels and rock types?  How do the number of ‘bird strikes’ at airports across the U.S. differ based on the season?  These are a selection of research topics in the ‘Geospatial Semester’-a college geography class where students use GIS to study and conduct their own projects (some of which are shown with this post).  What makes this course unlike your typical college class is it doesn’t take place at a university and it doesn’t include college students.  The Geospatial Semester is composed of high school juniors and seniors, learning how to apply GIS and GPS technologies in a variety of fields, at their own campus.

Through a unique partnership between James Madison University (JMU) and 23 high schools in Virginia (and one in New York), nearly 2,000 students have earned ~6,000 college credit hours while learning geospatial technologies with the support of ESRI.  The classes are offered as dual enrollment and are taught by Career and Technical Education (CTE), civics or science instructors while two JMU professors make monthly classroom visits and offer electronic technical and project support.  So what makes this dual enrollment program so different?

In a break from the increasingly rigid structure of many high school classes, the Geospatial Semester is designed to accommodate the many needs of different schools.  Participating teachers can navigate around the often-restrictive nature of subject pacing guides and high stakes testing by gearing their instruction towards a variety of content and curriculum.  Students can learn the core components of the software through application to a range of subjects and fields.  This interdisciplinary approach, in turn, helps keep learning relevant for students by allowing them to use GIS to explore content relevant topics, and develop their critical and spatial thinking skills.  For their final exam students provide an oral defense about the interpretation and meaning of their projects before a panel of JMU professors. In this ‘Problem Based Learning’ environment students get the chance to explore issues that relate to their community, current events or even their personal interests.  Students stay excited and engaged throughout the year when instead of performing stock activities, they get to address real issues such as evaluating patterns of crime, assessing the fire vulnerability of a national forest or even analyzing Real Madrid’s passing efficiency when playing against Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona! 

The Geospatial Semester is a mentored dual enrollment program that continues to evolve thanks in part to a design that stays flexible and relevant while focusing on problem based learning.   Students continue to learn new technologies and stay engaged in learning while they apply them in fields of interest, and teachers get the opportunity to guide this learning and learn themselves.  Nine years after its inception, the Geospatial Semester not only continues to expand in Virginia but is helping launch similar programs in both Arizona and Oregon.

For more information on the Geospatial Semester, please consult its website http://www.isat.jmu.edu/geospatialsemester or contact a member of the Geospatial Semester team.

Also see the Geospatial Semester Replication Guide, a series of strategies for creating your own geospatial semester.

Tom Baker

About Tom Baker

Tom Baker is an Esri Education Manager, specializing in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, teacher education, and educational research. He regularly publishes and presents on geospatial technologies across education.
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