Creating Spatial Thinkers

James Madison University partners with Virginia high schools to promote GIS


In an effort to introduce high school seniors to career opportunities in the geospatial sciences, James Madison University’s (JMU) integrated science and technology department offers Geospatial Semester, a dual enrollment program between the university and high school GIS programs throughout Virginia.

High school seniors learn geospatial technologies from their home school while earning college credit. JMU provides participating schools with Esri ArcGIS software so they can complete their projects on the same software GIS professionals use. Additionally, JMU faculty visits the high schools periodically to observe student progress and to serve as mentors for the students’ final projects.

James Madison University’s Geospatial Semester received the 2015 Governor’s Technology Award for Innovative Use of Technology in Education. Pictured left to right: Virginia Chief Information Officer Nelson Moe; Paul Rittenhouse, JMU director of spatial projects; Dr. Bob Kolvoord, dean of JMU’s College of Integrated Science and Engineering; and Virginia Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson. Photo Credit: Commonwealth of Virginia Information Technology Symposium

JMU’s Geospatial Semester began in 2005, and more than 3,000 students across 15 Virginia school districts have since completed the program.

“It’s a way to jump-start students in preparation for college and to develop skills like project management,” said Dr. Bob Kolvoord, dean of JMU’s College of integrated science and engineering and a professor of integrated science and technology. “If you give students a different experience it allows them to do creative projects using these [GIS] tools.”

Kolvoord said Geospatial Semester teaches basic GIS skills and how to apply those skills to assignments and small projects, which include learning how to use Trimble GPS devices and ArcGIS software to collect and map data and apply it to real life scenarios. Students then create a final project to present and defend to JMU faculty.

Students have the freedom to work with any organization they choose for their final project. In the past, seniors have worked with the United States Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Loudoun County government, Shenandoah National Park, Mary Baldwin College, and many others. After successfully completing the program, students receive transferable college credit.

“The final project helps their presentation skills and ability to think beyond what their work means,” Kolvoord said. “It’s about developing more spatial thinkers. This is not simply about training GIS mechanics, but to have students explore GIS problems.”

Tara Meadows, a social studies teacher at Luray High School in Luray, Va., said the high school has participated in Geospatial Semester since 2006. She said the program has been invaluable and has helped Luray High School’s GIS course become a success.

“The Geospatial Semester is a nontraditional, unique experience for high school seniors,” Meadows said. “It is a refreshing class format that gives students ownership in the learning experience.”

Many 2015 high school awardees of USGIF’s Scholarship Program participated in Geospatial Semester—one of whom is Christina Bohnet, a graduate from South Lakes High School in Reston, Va. and currently a freshman at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. As a double major in geography and Japanese, Bohnet said Geospatial Semester was the reason she decided to continue her education in geography.

“I found I have an aptitude for geography through the program, and my teacher was very supportive and helpful to me in my learning,” Bohnet said. “One of my favorite parts of the course was the field trip my school organized to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. I got a lot of feedback from the analysts there, and my final project was well-received.”

In 2015, Geospatial Semester won the Governor’s Technology Award for Innovative Use of Technology in Education, which recognized the program’s overall achievements and innovative partnerships with Virginia high schools.

Headline photo caption: Luray High School GIS students learn how to use geospatial technology and collect data for assignments as part of JMU’s Geospatial Semester dual enrollment program. Photo Credit: Tara Meadows

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