Since the early 1960s, Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, have revolutionized the way the public and private sectors approach problems and share information. With the ability to translate raw data into maps and reports, GIS has the flexibility to be used in thousands of applications, from disaster relief to traffic patterns. Due to its wide use, experience and knowledge in GIS is a valuable and sought after skill. Yet, it is a skill that is inaccessible to many; most GIS programs are taught at the University level, while online training and certification can cost upwards of $5,000. However, a new program emerging at the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth (NCSG) is arming high school students in Maryland with both knowledge and experience in this state-of-the art technology, creating new opportunities for life after high school.
The program is a GIS high school internship, an idea that sprouted from the center’s Sustainable and Equitable Economic Development—or SEED—initiative, which began last fall with funding from the Surdna Foundation. The SEED initiative is a program that aims to eliminate obstacles faced by low income and underserved populations while simultaneously promoting environmental sustainability. According to the center’s Associate Director, Jason Sartori, creating an internship opportunity within the center that focuses on SEED initiative goals seemed a fitting way to reinforce that message. Overseen by Eli Knaap, a research assistant at NCGS and Master Degree candidate at Maryland’s Urban Studies Program, the internship targets students in low-income areas who may face barriers for continued education or viable job opportunities once they complete high school.
“A big part of the SEED agenda is creating pathways from poverty to prosperity,” explains Sartori. “For many that’s about gaining the job skills that will enable them to move up the ladder. Our hope is that by providing the means to gain valuable skills like GIS, we can help these students get to the first rung of such a ladder.”
The internship program is mid-way through its first semester and currently has three students. The students, chosen out of a number of interested applicants from around Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties, commit to at least six hours a week at NCSG after school. The program allows great flexibility in how students are compensated, whether its service hours or high school credit.
While the program provides the benefit of real job force training to high school students, it is equally beneficial to NCSG, providing support to their research. Interns split their time at the center between GIS training and actual mining and mapping for various research projects currently underway at the center. Instruction involves online tutorials and classes—normally costing several hundred dollars—book work, and one-on-one training with researchers and graduate assistants. Armed with their newly acquired skill set, interns work to collect data, “clean” it so that it is consistent and streamlined, and use it to make maps for a variety of research initiatives. Students also have the opportunity to use the software to work on projects for school.
“What’s been so rewarding is to see the light click on as to how GIS works and how they can use it advantageously,” says Knaap. “Some of the students are using it for school projects, and even to build a nice portfolio for college.”
“I’m learning a lot,” said Elian Imlay-Maire, a 17 year-old junior from Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County. “When I first came into the internship it was complicated, but with training and practice I understand it a lot better. I feel like this is a skill I could use for lots of things.”
The center is in the process of hiring a new crop of interns for the summer and fall. Eli Knaap hopes they will be able to accommodate students from more outlying areas in the summer months, when school hours are not an obstacle. With enthusiastic support from institutions like Prince George’s County Public Schools and Casa de Maryland, NCSG is now working to gain funding to keep the program running and grow it in subsequent semesters. The center is also working to expand the program into Baltimore.
By semester’s end, students walk away with something crucial to post-high school success: options. Most interns will have enough GIS training to prepare them for an associate’s certification, allowing the possibility for an entry-level job in the field. Students will also have a showpiece for college applications and the added experience of a working relationship with faculty and staff at a major university.
“By participating in this internship, these students know the steps to develop a GIS project, start to finish,” says Knaap. “While we get lots of nice work out of that, they gain a very relevant skill set. The goal is to provide students with valuable job force training that could conceivably help them gain professional employment after high school.”
“Some, perhaps most, will take the internship experience to college; others might go directly to work,” adds Sartori. “Either way, if we are successful, then we will have practiced what we preach.”
The School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland is home to four academic disciplines: architecture, urban planning, historic preservation and real estate development. Committed to educating its students and community about the importance of sustainability and smart growth, the School practices an interdisciplinary approach to education, research, creative work, and community and professional service. For more information, please e-mail us or call 301.405.8000.
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