In a bright corner of Carole Weinstein International Center there’s a hub of cutting-edge mapping and geospatial technology. But as Lab Director Kim Klinker points out, the most interesting thing about the Spatial Analysis Lab is, “We’re a technology lab that doesn’t focus on technology.”

The Spatial Analysis Lab is run by the Department of Geography and the Environment and contains a bank of computers loaded with the latest Geographic Information System (GIS), Global Positioning System (GPS) and Remote Sensing software programs. It allows students to build maps and learn the underlying principles of spatial analysis through hands-on experience.

It’s that hands-on experience that is a major tenet of Klinker’s teaching strategy. “The focus is not on how to learn to use a software tool, it’s on what the software can help you do. It’s about encouraging students to do something meaningful,” she says.

Klinker makes the resources of the lab available to any department on campus. As a result, her students take on projects that are as varied as mapping the University campus to show accessible routes for someone in a wheelchair, plotting Virginia census data on a map, designing lesson plans for a biology class that will visit the lab, and assisting a journalism faculty member with a book project by mapping climate change data. The lab also has assisted on projects relating to economics, history, Middle Eastern studies, and archaeology. “We use the technology in innovative and creative ways and try not to limit ourselves,” Klinker says.

Through these assignments her students come to understand how the technology works and become adept problem-solvers. “The projects simulate what it would be like to use GIS in the real world, as opposed to simply following a set of steps in an exercise in the back of a textbook,” Klinker says.

Her project-based approach requires a lot of support, especially for those starting out. To meet growing demand, Klinker has taken her “learning by doing” approach a step further and trained a group of student interns to provide assistance and model the technology for students and faculty.

Andrew Pericak, ’13, one of Klinker’s interns, enjoys helping others engage with GIS. “It’s easier sometimes to talk to a peer than to approach a teacher; we aim to make things more comfortable with students,” he says. Interning also allows Pericak to keep his skills sharp. “As I’m helping the students I’m learning new things myself, things that I had seen once and forgotten how to do, or something completely new,” he says. 

Continuing growth in the geospatial technology industry means that the learning never stops for Klinker or her students as they navigate software updates and new technologies. Klinker regularly attends conferences to keep her skills current and invites alumni working in the field to visit classes to share new techniques that they’ve learned.

When Klinker and Pericak attended a GIS conference in Baltimore in December 2012, they discovered that they were already using what was presented as the next generation of technologies, such as online mapping technologies and lidar data—similar to sonar data except it measures light waves instead of sound waves.

“It was empowering for me to realize that, what seems to be something I already know how to do, is cutting edge in the field,” Pericak says. “I think that speaks to the strength of our program.”

In the coming year, Klinker hopes to continue to reach out across campus to assist faculty and students with a variety of projects, to consider an international collaboration with a university in the Middle East, and to add a full-time professional technician to support the lab. “I feel pretty confident about where we are right now, and where we’re going,” she says.