The New Geospatial Information Systems Course

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Celeste Brooks

Two boarding school students take their drone for a spin at sunup

R-MA’s Geospatial Information Systems class, a college-level class taught by Col John Casserino, USAF, Retired, was offered for the first time during the 2016-17 school year, and it proved to be a resounding success. While the class has no homework, no quizzes, no tests, and no exams, it is not for the faint of heart.  It is a course intended for problem-solving students with inquisitive minds, those who are more interested in asking questions and obtaining information to help answer that question than in memorizing information. 

“This class is project-based,” Casserino explained. It requires students to combine creativity with research skills. They can develop projects by answering questions such as “What am I interested in? What kind of question can I come up with regarding that interest? How can I answer that question?” 

That creative part is the hardest part, according to both Casserino and Samuel Uzoma ’18, the only junior to take the class this year. “You can take four days trying to figure out what to do,” said Uzoma. 

Once that part is over, the application is next. “The students use a software application to investigate and analyze a situation in spatial terms, such as on a map or a globe,” said Casserino. “They have to acquire data. Sometimes it already exists in the program, some they may have to look up, or they may have to change the project if they can’t get the data they need.” 

One project example examined the typical hospital locations in relation to school locations, broken down by county in Northern Virginia.  The student examined the physical distance between the buildings, both in a straight line and by road. She examined the speed limit, stoplights, and other factors, and determined that only 29% of schools in Northern Virginia were within five minutes of a hospital. The heavily populated Arlington County was at the top of the list, with the schools averaging only 3.5 minutes from hospitals. The sparsely populated Clarke County was the worst, with the schools located as much as 20 minutes away from hospitals—because Clarke County does not have any hospitals of its own. Casserino said the information could be used to answer the question of, “If I had funds to build a new hospital, where would I build it?” As Casserino pointed out the answer would be vary, depending on whether you made the decision based on schools or population.

“This class allows you to ask a really complex question that needs geospatial information to answer it, look at things, and determine what meets the greatest need,” said Casserino. R-MA’s Director of Grounds, Tom Laourdakis, hopes to use the program to plot out the trees on campus based on age, height, and health, and determine how likely each one is to fall, thus guiding his decisions on what trees to replace and when to do it. 

“These projects can be as practical as could be,” said Casserino. “Or they could be fun.”

Uzoma, an avid sports enthusiast, used his project to answer questions about R-MA’s future athletic facilities. “I asked ‘Do we have the space for a new gym, pool, and parking lot?’” he said. “I learned a lot. It’s a one-of-a-kind software. You get to see things you didn’t see before, and do your own analysis. Even Google can’t do that.”