FGHS students team up with Pacific University to learn geospatial technology.

PMG PHOTO: JANAE EASLON - Forest Grove High School student Indigo Curtis, 17, studied possible correlations between marijuana legalization and traffic accidents for his geospatial technology project in 'Mapping My World.'Got a problem? Why not solve it with a map?

For five years, Forest Grove High School and Pacific University teamed up in the classroom to do just that with "Mapping My World," a course dedicated to introducing high school students to geospatial technology.

FGHS social studies teacher Scott McCahon — who has led the project since its inception — is retiring, but the class isn't going anywhere and will soon have new leadership under FGHS science teacher Briana Van Roekel.

As school reaches the end of the year, several FGHS students are presenting their final projects to not only their peers and McCahon, but two Pacific University professors, Mike Charles and Rich Van Buskirk.

The students spent all semester creating and researching their own geospatial technology project with the guidance of Charles, Van Buskirk and McCahon, and introduced a new way to problem solve and ask questions.

Also known as GIS, it maps geographical locations and uses the information as a way to analyze data and organize information, according to Esri, an international supplier of geographic information system software.

Students learn to use software to create their projects, a rare opportunity for young people. Geospatial technology, according to the United States Department of Labor, will be one of three top careers in demand in the coming 10 years.

PMG PHOTO: JANAE EASLON - Brisa Flores recently graduated Forest Grove High School and studied monarch butterflies for her geospatial technology project in 'Mapping My World.'Charles works for Pacific's College of Education, and learned about high school students actively participating in GIS projects through James Madison University in Virginia.

He thought, why can't Forest Grove do that? Then he decided to start a similar program that became one of the only ones of its kind on the West Coast.

"My thought when creating this was, 'What if university professors showed up in a high school classroom?'" Charles said. "When I saw a class like this up and running in Virginia, I looked around and thought we could definitely do the same."

Brisa Franco graduated FGHS this spring and aims to become a lawyer involved in future policy changes. Her next move is to attend George Fox University in the fall, and taking "Mapping My World," also called the Pacific Geospatial Semester, opened up possibilities for how she can contribute to the future, she said.

"When I imaged mapping, I thought about navigation, where I am and using a compass," Franco said. "It really is about looking for patterns, and going into this project I didn't know what I wanted to do ... I wanted it to be fun. I've always been interested in butterflies, and right now a heavy topic is climate change.

"I decided to look into how that may affect their food source and their migration patterns. I realized how much work it is for them to do that and going into GIS, I began to come up with more questions. If you like what you are doing, you'll find those answers."

Franco's project, titled "Why do Monarchs Migrate instead of Staying in one Place?" will be entered in Esri User Conference's Map Gallery for consideration as a display. The conference, located in San Diego in July, will be attended by Charles, Van Buskirk and others from Forest Grove to represent the town.

"Now I am starting to think about how I can help these butterflies and bringing more awareness to these issues and how I can educate myself," Franco said. "This class is great, and having the professors come in really helped."

The project began as Pacific University staff teaching high school staff over the summer to use GIS programs, but it began to grow into something more.

"We run a support network and help with getting students through the tough parts of it," said Van Buskirk, who teaches Intro to GIS to undergraduates at Pacific. "What we are trying to do is bring a higher caliber to the classroom by having us faculty to come in and challenge the students, and to help who is teaching the course solve problems they can't."

PMG PHOTO: JANAE EASLON - Forest Grove High School student Sam Dennis, 17, studied best picture winners in film and where they were filmed for his  geospatial technology project in 'Mapping My World.'Pacific faculty visit the class once a month and stay in touch with students via email to answer questions they may have about their projects, he said. Many choose to pick topics that pertain to Forest Grove and surrounding areas, introducing them to problem-solving for issues close to home.

"For me, the questions I get and the things they are interested in ... gives me the ability to steer them toward information that will help them," Van Buskirk said. "As people see what happens around them, it makes the problems more real."

McCahon was the first high school teacher in Oregon to helm a class like this. When his students enroll in "Mapping My World," they earn not only high school credits, but also college credits for Environmental Science.

Many of these students didn't know what they were walking into when enrolling, but many walked out learning far more than they thought they might, he said.

"The feedback from the kids is they have no idea what it is at first, and it is really about answering questions with maps," McCahon said. "The critical thinking these kids go through to get where they are at the end, that is the enjoyment I have gotten. Getting to teach it this for the past five years — I've taught history for 38 years — it really has changed my perspective on how I look at the world."

To learn more about the collaboration between Pacific and FGHS or look at past projects done by students, visit

By Janae Easlon
Features Editor
Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
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