GIS Workshop Students Prepare for "Real Life" in Collaboration with Employers like MEDRIX

Submitted by Nell Gross on

Recent graduates Elisabet Gordon, Claire Perez and Tyler Treat didn't know each other before the start of spring quarter, but in just ten weeks together they produced a series of maps analyzing forest coverage change in Bach Ma National Park in Vietnam. While the site of their research is thousands of miles from Seattle, this distance took on new meaning at a time when UW course instruction, teamwork collaboration, data collection and presentations were all conducted remotely due to COVID-19 and the enforcement of stay at home orders around the U.S. and the world. Thanks to Professor Tim Nyerges; Robert Catherman, President of MEDRIX; and a collection of tools designed for communication across distance, Gordon, Perez and Treat were able to stay in touch and produce what Robert calls "useful deliverable reports" - even winning the 2020 Geography Undergraduate Research Symposium's Gallery Project Prize!

This spring, Professor Nyerges guided teams of students in GEOG 469 GIS Workshop through digital projects brought to the course from a wide range of nonprofit organizations and government agencies. He writes that these "[p]rojects represent win-win-win relationships for the a) students gaining real world experience, b) sponsors gaining access to [students] with GIS skills and c) the course sustaining the pedagogy over time." Three such projects were proposed by Catherman on behalf of MEDRIX, a not-for-profit organization working in Vietnam. These projects continued an eight-year partnership with the Department of Geography that was initiated by Ph.D. graduate and current affiliate faculty member Joe Hannah. Since that first quarter, says Catherman: "MEDRIX has submitted one or more GIS Workshop projects each year. The recent decade has seen drastic improvements in the Vietnamese economy and living standards. These changes have necessitated changes in the work of MEDRIX. MEDRIX has established new contacts with a major Vietnamese university’s Environmental Science department and some of MEDRIX’s project efforts have shifted toward GIS analysis of remote sensing images."

Gordon, Perez and Treat all opted to work on the MEDRIX project that asked them to analyze the last decade's forest coverage change in Bach Ma National Park, and delegated the tasks "based on our experience and what we felt comfortable doing," according to Perez. Both Perez and Gordon note the importance of Zoom, email and Google Drive for their collaboration. Among the Zoom meetings with Catherman, Perez writes "the first was to establish the relationship/introduce ourselves and sort of understanding what exactly he wanted from us in terms of the project. The others were to talk to him about issues if we were having any. Then throughout the quarter if we wanted to ask him something small or just give a quick update, we would email him." Gordon adds "We had a lot of challenges with QGIS in the beginning. While we had used it a bit in previous classes, none of us really had much experience with it. We were able to figure out things though since there’s a lot of guides for using it online and [Catherman] also provided us with an additional QGIS guide that MEDRIX used." "In the end," Catherman writes, "we accomplished the goals we established at the beginning of the quarter. Yes, it was not as personal as in the past, but I feel like the students received nearly as much benefit from their work. [This team] learned that one of the biggest problems in GIS work is not can you create a nice-looking map but the bigger problem is 'how do I find accurate, clean data to put on my map?'" Professor Nyerges believes the students "did a great job": "All three MEDRIX partnership projects resulted in significant results, each offering materials that can be used by students in Vietnam."

"I do think this class taught me some life skills at least in terms of what it is like to be more professional and it taught me some new GIS skills," writes Perez. Likewise, Gordon has "dealt with a lot of self doubt and imposter syndrome over my time in college and at the UW but this class made me realize that I can actually do it. It is hard to do but when working together as a team, it goes better and people are willing to provide help if you ask for it... I thought the class was good overall and does a good job preparing you for real life GIS work. It’s very challenging but the class broke things down into steps that made it a lot easier and I learned a lot from it."

GEOG 469 GIS Workshop is offered to senior geography majors every spring quarter and will continue to feature projects contributed by MEDRIX. View Elisabet Gordon, Claire Perez, and Tyler Treat's 2020 project presentation at the link below:

Geography Undergraduate Research Symposium Gallery