Summer snapshots: GIS students team up to form class

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Most of the students in the College of Letters & Science may be away for the summer, but that doesn’t mean the action has stopped on campus. Our faculty and staff are still living out the Wisconsin Idea, both in Madison and all over the world. This is a story in our Summer Snapshots series.

Twice a week for two hours you’ll find a computer lab in Science Hall alive with activity.

It’s the summer and the group that gathers in the classroom isn’t part of an official course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But there’s still plenty of learning taking place.

The class is called the “GIStudent Collective”– as in Geographic Information Systems, a field that encompasses the digital side of mapping and geography, both the data management and graphical elements. The collective is an effort to facilitate the sharing of technical knowledge associated with the field between students and alumni.

Its creators are Sam Matthews (BS’11, Geography and Biological Aspects of Conservation) and Chandler Sterling (BA’10, Geography and Political Science), two students from the Department of Geography’s graduate-level GIS certificate program. UW-Madison offers Bachelors of Science and Masters of Science degrees in Cartography and GIS – one of only a handful of schools in the nation to do so – as well as the one-year capstone certificate program.

Matthews and Sterling both fell hard for the field after discovering it late in their undergraduate studies. (Just how hard? Well, they formed a band called “The Lost Cartographers String Band.”) And even after completing the program – Sterling did in May, while Matthews will finish this summer – they wanted to continue to dig deeper.

“There’s an enormous amount of information that’s out there to learn,” Matthews said.

All students in the GIS certificate program take an internship for credit, placements in which they’re each exposed to different technologies. Matthews had the idea for a get-together that would allow students to share the knowledge they acquired on the job. He was thinking it would be a small, loosely organized meeting at Der Rathskeller in Memorial Union, so he sent an email to the rest of the students in the program. The Department of Geography sent out a note as well, and Matthews got around 30 responses expressing interest.

“All 30 of those people have their own opinions about GIS. They know different things about GIS,” Matthews said. “The more people you can get, the more collective knowledge you can create.”

The department has helped to formalize the class a bit by providing access to the computer lab and server space and, by student request, academic staff members plan to lead sessions on several topics. Matthews and Sterling also asked the department’s Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Office to speak to the group and are hoping to bring in other professionals in the field.

“Beyond the technical tools they are teaching each other and the group problem-solving they are undertaking, which will undoubtedly deepen their professional understanding, it is this type of initiative, teamwork and innovation that will serve them very well as professionals in this quickly evolving technical field,” said Karen Tuerk, the GIS Certificate Program Manager. “Our best students are not those who just get good grades, but those that know how to get what they need and make things happen.”

Everyone in the group can’t make every session – they meet Mondays and Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m. – but those who can’t are still able to keep up online. Matthews and Sterling have created a website to document anything and everything that’s covered in the class in a way that doesn’t require a computer science background to comprehend. They also want it to serve as a reference for students in the future. And, while they are hoping to find students to take over the class, they plan to stay involved even after they leave campus.

“The whole reason that we’re in the program is because we want to do GIS professionally and to strengthen our skills in any way, shape or form,” Sterling said. “This has been a really great experience.”