Using Geospatial Education and Geographic Information Science (GISc) Technologies to Enhance Student Engagement in Research Aligned Mentorship Opportunities

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A National Symposium

November 18–19, 2016

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia

Teaching students to understand and use geospatial methods and geographic information science (GISc) will enhance their opportunity to participate in research aligned mentorship activities. Mapping is no longer just for geography departments. By putting information in the context of location, GIScience methods and technologies can be applied across several fields of study to enhance learning and teaching. GIScience can give students the skills they need for careers in—to name just a few professional domains—health, marketing, security, environmental studies, engineering, natural resource management and, of course, geography (ESRI, 2016). There is a growing interest in and awareness of the economic and strategic value of understanding geospatial concepts. This growing need for a geographically informed workforce prompted this geospatial educator/scientist to ask such questions as: how are linkages created between project-based geospatial education and using geographic information systems (GIS)? This essay will focus on the approach this geographer took to answer this question, and will inform the reader about geospatial education and how GISc technologies enhance student engagement in research aligned mentorship opportunities.

Geographic information science methods and technologies can be applied across several fields of study to enhance learning and teaching. Let us start with some key terminology, along with a couple of examples. What does geospatial mean? Geospatial is generally accepted to mean “the collective data and associated technology having a geographic or locational component” (Dempsey, 2014). What are geographic information systems? “Geographic information systems,” as Nadine Schuurman (2013) defines them, “are the collection of software, hardware, outputs, personnel, and practices that together facilitate the analysis and mapping of geographic entities and phenomena. The field of geographic information science broadly explores the theory and concepts underpinning geographic information systems and related geospatial technologies, such as remote sensing and the Global Positioning System (GPS).” This definition of GIS leads us to understand what a geographic information system allows us to do. Per the Environmental Systems Research Institute website (2016), “a geographic GIS lets us visualize, question, analyze, and interpret data to understand relationships, patterns, and trends. GIS benefits organizations of all sizes and in almost every industry.”

Geospatial technology, as described by Caitlin Dempsey (2014), “refers to all of the technology used to acquire, manipulate, and store geographic information. GIS is one form of geospatial technology. GPS and remote sensing are other examples of geospatial technology.” Remote sensing, according to the Indiana University Knowledge Base website (2015), “is the art and science of making measurements of the earth using sensors on airplanes or satellites. These sensors collect data in the form of images and provide specialized capabilities for manipulating, analyzing, and visualizing those images. Remote sensed imagery is integrated within a GIS.” Remote sensing “has a wide range of applications in many different fields:

  • Coastal applications: monitor shoreline changes, track sediment transport, and map coastal features. Data can be used for coastal mapping and erosion prevention.
  • Ocean applications: monitor ocean circulation and current systems, measure ocean temperature and wave heights, and track sea ice. Data can be used to better understand the oceans and how to best manage ocean resources.
  • Hazard assessment: tracks hurricanes, earthquakes, erosion, and flooding. Data can be used to assess the impacts of a natural disaster and create preparedness strategies to be used before and after a hazardous event.
  • Natural resource management: monitors land use, maps wetlands, and charts wildlife habitats. Data can be used to minimize the damage that urban growth has on the environment and help decide how to best protect natural resources” (Civil Mentor, 2014 and NOAA, 2015 ).

The Global Positioning System (GPS), according to the Trimble GPS Tutorial website (2016), “is a worldwide radio-navigation system formed from a constellation of 24 satellites and their ground stations. GPS uses these “man-made stars” as reference points to calculate positions accurate to a matter of meters. These days GPS is finding its way into cars, boats, planes, construction equipment, movie-making gear, farm machinery, even laptop computers.” Now that we have covered the concepts and terms related to GISc and geospatial technologies, we will move to a cursory overview of using geospatial education and GISc technologies to enhance student engagement in research aligned mentorship opportunities.

According to the Federal Geographic Data Committee (2016), “the United States is a world leader in geospatial technology and research, an area that represents a multi-billion dollar sector of the U.S. economy. This high-growth, high-technology industry acquires, manages, analyzes, integrates, maps, distributes, and uses geographic, temporal, and spatially based information and knowledge to fuel major sectors of the U.S. economy. The industry includes research, technology development, education, and applications to address the planning, decision-making, and operational needs of people and organizations of all types. But the geospatial industry faces a serious workforce development challenge: a shortage of qualified and skilled workers. Efforts must be undertaken across the government, the private sector, academia, and professional associations to prepare workers to take advantage of new geospatial job opportunities in high demand, economically vital sectors of the American economy.”

The government has made an attempt to support the geospatial education effort with the June 2013 announcement of the ConnectED Initiative. This initiative is designed to enrich K-12 education for every student in America. “ConnectED empowers teachers with the best technology and the training to make the most of it, and empowers students through individualized learning and rich, digital content” (ConnectED Initiative, 2016). In the private sector, the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), the leading developer of geographic information system software, has offered free ArcGIS Online and ArcGIS Desktop access to all K-12 schools in the United States (AAG, 2016). Although this is a great initiative that supports geospatial education, it is the contention of this researcher that there are not enough K-12 teachers with access to GIS professional development. In response to this need for professional development, the American Association of Geographers (AAG) created the AAG-ESRI-ConnectED GeoMentor Program. The GeoMentors Program is working to enhance GIS and geographic learning in U.S. K-12 schools through the introduction of ArcGIS Online into classrooms across the country. The American Association of Geographers, as a professional association with funding support from the Geography Education National Implementation Project (GENIP), has developed a proposal for a new Advanced Placement course in Geographic Information Science and Technology (AP GIS&T). AP GIS&T, according to Charlie Fitzpatrick (2016), “is designed to introduce high school students to the fundamentals of geographic information science and applications of powerful geospatial technologies for spatial analysis and problem solving.”

Situated on the Nassau/Suffolk County border, Long Island, New York, Farmingdale State College (FSC), a campus of the State University of New York, is a public comprehensive college of applied science and technology. Per its mission statement, “the educational experience at the College provides students with a foundation of knowledge and skills so that they may be imaginative, critical thinkers and successful problem solvers, who are motivated by a spirit of inquiry and recognized for innovative achievement throughout the region, state, and nation. FSC offers affordable programs to academically qualified students that support their educational aspirations, meet the needs of regional employers, and promote the economic, social, and cultural development of the region” (Farmingdale State College, 2016). Farmingdale State College is working to support the geospatial education initiative by offering a variety of GISc courses and has proposed a Bachelor of Arts in GISc. When approved, FSC will join the small list of college and universities that offer a four-year degree in GISc. Part of my research at FSC includes the assessment and visualization of potential high school partners in support of the proposal for the new Advanced Placement GIS&T course; and as a GeoMentor myself, I offer volunteer professional development for the local K-12 teachers. FSC Faculty are invited to join these GIS professional development workshops, which empower them to use and teach these geospatial tools and techniques to their own students.

According to the Federal Geographic Data Committee (2016), “establishing an effective geospatial job market requires a direct connection between the employer’s job requirements and the geospatial skills of the workforce.” It has been documented that students who have internship experience are more likely to be employed after graduation (Knouse, 1999; Briel, 2001; Khan, 2016). The FSC RAM program describes itself as “an extremely prestigious program funded by a major grant awarded to Farmingdale State College by the United States Department of Education. Each academic year, 250 new ‘high need’ (minority, low income, first generation, and/or adult learner) Farmingdale students are selected for membership in this program. In support of the most innovative aspect of the RAM program, the placement of students in mentored research, my research agenda includes working with select RAM students to place them in mentored research experiences both on campus and off campus (in national laboratories, research universities, businesses, etc.) in the summer after their sophomore year” (Farmingdale State College, 2016). Part of my role as a RAM mentor is to provide a structured on- and/or off-campus experience in a supervised setting that is related to the student’s major and career interests. Students would work with me as their RAM mentor along with the participating entity to foster internship opportunities related to real-world use and application of geospatial technologies. These applied projects can range from simple mapping to more advanced applications of geospatial analysis. Central to all internships will be the use of geospatial applications and techniques. Projects can include, but are not limited to, working with:

  • FSC Facilities for mapping campus infrastructure
  • Local municipalities
  • Local/regional businesses
  • Citizen groups
  • Nonprofit environmental organizations
  • National, statewide and local emergency management

Geospatial technologies are used in many different industries; RAM students that participate in a GIS internship will graduate with geospatial tools in their toolbox and are much more likely to get a job after graduation.


American Association of Geographers. (2016, August). AAG proposes new AP GIS&T course. AAG Newsletter. Retrieved from:

Briel, L. W. (2001). Internships in higher education: Promoting success for students with disabilities. Disability Studies Quarterly.

Civil Mentor. (2014, October 1). Remote sensing and GIS. Civil Mentor – Where Knowledge Dwells. Retrieved from:

ConnectED Initiative. (2016). Education: Knowledge and skills for the job of the future. Retrieved from:

Dempsey, C. (2014, January 24). What is the difference between GIS and geospatial? GIS Lounge. Retrieved from:

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Farmingdale State College. (2016). Farmingdale State College. Retrieved from:

Farmingdale State College. (2016). The RAM Program. Retrieved from:

Federal Geographic Data Committee. (2016). National Geospatial Advisory Committee. Retrieved from:

Fitzpatrick, C. (2016, August 29). Proposal for AP GIS&T. GIS Education Community. Retrieved from:

Indiana University. (2015, July 6). What are GIS and remote sensing? Knowledge Base. Retrieved from:

Khan, A. A. (2016). Reshaping the early careers by business graduates through internship experiences. Arabian Journal of Business and Management Review (Oman Chapter), 6(4), 38-50.

Knouse, S. T. (1999). The relation of college internships, college performance, and subsequent job opportunity. Journal of Employment Counseling, 36(1), 35-43. doi:10.1002/j.2161-1920.1999.tb01007.x

NOAA. (2015, May 29). What is remote sensing? National Ocean Service. Retrieved from:

Schuurman, N. (2013). Geographic information science. Oxford Bibliographies. Retrieved from:

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