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Mason GGS students partner with local organizations to assess risk, address digital equity

Experiential learning. Capstone projects. These aren’t just academic buzzwords but rather ways for students to look beyond classroom theory and use real world data or scenarios to solve specific scientific problems. Many students seek out such opportunities for the practical experience they learn partnering with organizations. The projects may even highlight a future career path.

 One course offering these unique opportunities to both graduate and undergraduate students is Mason’s Web Mapping (GGS 462/692) offered by the Department of Geography and Geoinformation Science. The class lets students go beyond learning the techniques for taking data and creating data-driven interactive web mapping applications that help explain key findings. Students go one step further. Splitting into groups and working with real organizations who provide real data provides students with a true opportunity to find solutions to a real-world challenge.

The course’s instructor, GGS department Chair Dieter Pfoser, requires his students to utilize the same tools and resources commonly used in the industry. “We build the groups to simulate the process of working with a team to solve complex problems—dividing work among the groups and meeting specific deadlines to accomplish tasks in a finite period of time’” Pfoser explained.  

Graduate student, James Valentine, and his group worked with the Global Council for Science and the Environment (GCSE) to determine the level of preparedness or vulnerability for communities across the country. While the NCSE handled risk assessments, Valentine’s team looked at those communities and mapped out the number of colleges and universities in those areas. They noted the programs and courses offered by each institution that would support the community’s resiliency in handling issues like natural disasters or economic hardships.

According to Valentine, “Our team’s focus on resiliency spanned from emergency preparedness to public policy and civil engineering.” In the end, the students mapped out existing connections between community resiliency and higher education.

Another group in the class, Kyle Foster, Madeline Gold, and Lindsay Marfurt, who’s pursuing her Geographic Information Science Graduate Certificate, focused on digital equity, working with Arlington County to review WIFI hotspot data. The county provides free access to the internet through WIFI hotspots in public spaces such as libraries and community centers, and tasked the team with identifying what factors influenced a successful hotspot and whether those factors could determine where there may be successful hotspots in Fairfax County.

Madeline Gold, who’s pursuing a Master’s in Geographic and Cartographic Science, said that those entering any geospatial career should have an understanding of the coding required for web mapping. “You need to understand at a basic level how the code works, what you're looking at, but more importantly how to analyze the data in a way that is accessible to the general public who may not be informed about the topic.”

Kyle Foster, a PhD student in the Earth Systems and Geoinformation Sciences program, said that communicating research results to the public and other scientists is intrinsically geospatial—tied to both place and time.

“This class is a really useful opportunity to get hands-on experience with the tools and the strategies necessary for performing this analysis and distributing it in what has become the most common form of disseminating this sort of information,” Foster said.

Valentine agreed, saying that the time-distance equation is essential for understanding human behavior, and what serves as barriers and influencers to those behaviors. A retired military veteran with a background in western political theory, Valentine is pursuing a master’s in geoinformatics and geospatial intelligence. He plans to later earn a PhD in computational sciences. “In my work, I found that maps were the easiest way to get my point across,” said Valentine.

According to Pfoser, this experiential learning approach is found across the Mason science curriculum.

“Some of my students in our research seminar (GGS590 Urban Analytics) are taking their learning experiences and turning them into further opportunities.” Pfoser said. For example, “our Mason students were finalists in the Smart City Challenge hackathon.”