Northwestern University professor David Uttal and his collaborators have received a four-year, $2 million National Science Foundation grant to implement and study new ways to teach vocational education to Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students.
The funding allows the team of researchers to bring a new course called “Geospatial Semester” to CPS, giving a diverse array of students access to cutting-edge technology that prepares them for STEM careers.
Originally designed for Virginia high school students, the course emphasizes developing spatial thinking skills through a Geographic Information System (GIS), a common digital mapmaking tool used in business, agriculture, marketing, and other fields to help solve location-based problems.
The National Science Foundation funding will help researchers launch an adapted version of the course inside six Career and Technical Education clusters in CPS. Students will be selected from groups that are currently underrepresented in STEM occupations.
Geospatial Semester integrates GIS software and geospatial problem solving – or using data that has a geographic component — into existing career and technical education classes in entrepreneurship, pre-engineering, law and public safety, health science, construction and architecture, and agricultural sciences.
“GIS software connects databases to maps and allows users to analyze location-based problems, such as where to locate public safety offices, how to reroute school buses for more efficient routing, or identifying how pollution might be connected to property values,” said collaborator Bob Kolvoord of James Madison University in Harrisburg, Virginia.
Students in these classes will earn dual enrollment credit from their high school and from the City Colleges of Chicago. In addition to being a useful skill across the STEM fields, proficiency in GIS software can be a great path to a well-paying job without having to complete a college degree, the researchers said.
In addition to Kolvoord, Uttal will be working with former longtime SESP faculty member Steven McGee, founder of The Learning Partnership, a Western Springs-based educational research organization and Carolyn Jourdan from the Career and Technical Education office in the Chicago Public Schools.
The project brings together Chicago Public School with City Colleges and represents a new, integrated way of teaching, said Uttal, the study’s principal investigator and professor of education and psychology at Northwestern.
“Educators are looking for new ways to prepare students for careers that require high levels of science and mathematics knowledge but do not always require a four-year college degree,” Uttal said. “Our project offers a promising approach.”
Researchers and teachers will work together to develop classroom assessments of spatial reasoning to see if Chicago students in the adapted class have comparable outcomes with Virginia students.
“Teachers will be able to support Chicago students in developing GIS skills, one of the fastest growing career areas,” McGee said. “What we learn from this project can be applied to a variety of urban settings to help students earn college credit and develop skills that will be immediately applicable.”