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Building Geospatial Skills for the Greater Good

Curby Alexander and Molly Weinburgh received a National Science Foundation grant to build high school students’ geospatial skills and prepare them for STEM careers. They are part of a team of researchers from three universities awarded the $2.8 million grant, with TCU receiving more than $500,000 for their portion of the four-year project.

Alexander, who is the Principal Investigator (PI) for TCU’s grant, and Weinburgh, Co-PI, will collaborate with researchers from Lehigh University and Washington State University Tri-Cities to work with interdisciplinary groups of teachers in their respective locations. Researchers and teachers will develop and implement hands-on socio-environmental science projects, giving students a chance to develop questions and collect data using Geographic Information System (GIS) software to solve problems in their community.

GIS mapping isn’t a new tool, but educators are using it more frequently to assess educational systems and enhance learning and critical thinking. The research team wants to know what impact these projects have on students’ geography skills and geospatial thinking.

“We want to know if students can recognize things like correlations in data and use that data to inform decision making in their community,” Alexander said. “Maps and visualizations make the most sense to us.”

Alexander used an example from Lehigh’s initial NSF-funded project. One student wanted to know what access kids in her community had to skateboard legally. She analyzed data using ArcGIS software and found that kids in the community didn’t have access to places they were allowed to skateboard, leading to increased police interactions. She presented her report and the city created a skate park to address the issue.

This project will build on Lehigh’s three-year project to include diverse geographical and school settings and more students who are typically underrepresented in STEM fields.

“We try to get students to notice patterns, boundaries and change over time,” Alexander said. “It helps them think about how different locations in their community are coded on a map how they can start to address issues.”

The TCU team will work with I.M. Terrell Academy and Paschal High School educators and students. They aim to complete a pilot project this year and collect data and feedback to adapt to needs of students in Texas. He said even if students continue to learn virtually due to COVID-19 precautions, data can be collected from home using online surveys, iPads checked out from schools or students’ phones.

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