GIS Mapping and the Sustainability Major at Jacksonville University

In addition to her focus on Geography and Sustainability, as well as Geography and the Environment, Dr. Ashley M. Johnson, Assistant Professor of Geography at Jacksonville University, offers her students an innovative and exciting approach to GIS mapping.

Mapping with GIS, or a Geographic Information System, is a technical, geographic skill that is a requirement for Sustainability majors at JU, and Johnson has found a way to engage students with the versatility and flexibility of GIS mapping tools while providing extensive, face-to- face, hands-on, technical training with the newest industry-standard software.

Johnson has been pleased to see how well JU students have been performing immediately after graduating, as they are applying these “hard skills” learned in the classroom to fulfill an array of tasks in varied fields: from using GIS for crime mapping in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s office or mapping natural resources, to using GIS mapping at work for a railroad company or the Jacksonville Electrical Authority. They have gained experience using industry-standard software, in a recently remodeled computer lab, where they have the chance to do hands-on work with GIS mapping, and she finds that their expertise in this skill has been something to “really separate them from the rest of applicants.”

Speaking of her passion for sustainability and the environment, Johnson notes that Sustainability as a major is not commonly offered in a small, liberal arts institution. In fact, JU is one of the few institutions in Florida that offers a four-year degree in Sustainability. Because they can approach the issue from a liberal arts focus and in smaller class sizes, they always have an interesting mix of students in the courses, which allows for exciting crossover dialogue that incorporates a broad variety of disciplines and interests: Natural Sciences, Biology, Engineering, Philosophy, Ethics, and the Economy—among other topics. Because it is about “saving both money and resources,” Johnson adds, “Sustainability can be paired with almost anything.”

Learning a New Language

Former Sustainability student Janessa Rothman shares that, while she expected to be impressed by her teachers’ knowledge and experience, Dr. Johnson falls into a special category: one of those professors who made her wonder how they manage to accomplish all that they do. During her first semester, Rothman recognized that Johnson—her advisor, professor, and mentor— is “a force at JU.”

One aspect of the Sustainability program that Rothman found especially unique is the way it permits students to choose classes from many departments to build their major, which allowed her to couple her specific interests with core concepts of sustainability. She adds, “The sustainability major requires courses on conservation, climate, geography, ethics, regulations, and ArcGIS. For those that have never taken or heard of GIS, like myself before beginning my JU experience, it is similar to learning a new language, one which communicates stories of current or past places and events in the form of dynamic maps.”

Just in the course of her two years spent at JU, Rothman observed that Johnson radically increased campus awareness of GIS offerings and constantly offered help to any students who expressed interest in applying ArcGIS to their areas of academic interest. She adds that Johnson has “shed light on our impressive sustainability and geography programs at Jacksonville University by making ArcGIS an essential piece to the puzzle for conserving and protecting habitats, as human development increases.”

Exploring the Software

Graduate Zan Traversa completed Johnson’s GIS, Advanced GIS, and Sustainability courses and found that the “personal nature of the small class sizes” helped students feel comfortable, while allowing for a great deal of one-on-one assistance. In his first class with Johnson, Traversa was pursuing a degree in Marine Science, but the software and the classes were pulling his attention. He explains, “Dr. Johnson’s classes allowed students to explore the software in ways that were interesting to them. Students had the opportunity to choose their own topics for a number of projects.”

When Traversa eventually changed majors to focus on Geography with an Environmental Track and a minor in Sustainability, throughout the courses on sustainability, Traversa was impressed with how well-connected Johnson is with the network of sustainability professionals throughout North Florida. Traversa adds that Johnson’s support is a direct influence on the position he has now as a GIS Analyst and Data Analyst for the Jacksonville Transportation Authority. He’s confident that his work with GIS technology and the hands-on training that Johnson provided—in addition to the opportunities Johnson gave him to lead and mentor others—has contributed remarkably to his current success; he adds that Johnson “continues to assist her students well after graduation by sending job leads and assisting with graduate school applications and letters of recommendation.”

Another recent graduate tells a similar story. Former GIS and Sustainability student Ryan Molumby credits Johnson for having more of an impact on his educational and professional growth than any other educator he’s encountered. Praising Johnson’s teaching style, which he believes addresses each student’s individual needs on a powerful level—something he suggests is atypical in a “one size fits all approach” that is common in many university settings—Molumby explains, “For example, I tend to overanalyze and stress over assignments and tests. She recognized this and would personally reassure me that everything would be fine.”

Noting that he enrolled at JU because of the reputation of their Geography department, and its heavy focus on GIS, he was fascinated by how complicated and complex the program actually was; he notes, “Every time you think you understand it, you learn something new and realize how little you know.” He believes Johnson is incredibly gifted at GIS, appearing to know everything there is to know or instantly finding answers for new problems. He shares, “I had worked with GIS during my time in the military and have a decent amount of experience, but I have never met anyone who understands GIS like Dr. Johnson.”

As Molumby neared graduation, Johnsonencouraged him to pursue a master’s degree in GIS as well as a second major in sustainability, and he credits her guidance for where he is now: enrolled in a Masters of Geospatial Science and Technology program at NC State. He adds, “I know her intelligence, confidence, and personalized style will continue to inspire others the way she inspired me.”

Leaning on Each Other

While smaller private colleges and universities are often praised for their small class size and increased student-teacher interactions, Johnson seems to take this to an extraordinary level, something that is noticed by her students and colleagues alike.

Johnson believes that this generation of students, more than others before them perhaps, struggles with “being known,” and she is proud of the work being done at JU in addressing each student as an individual and finding ways to tap into their unique potential, talents, and personalities. Johnson is a firm believer that in “learning by doing” these abilities will stay with them, as they are able to “manipulate the data and execute the skill right there, immediately following the lecture.”

She is equally passionate about helping her colleagues develop their own GIS skills. Dr. Ray Oldakowski, Professor in the Department of Geography & the Environment, explains that Johnson is always willing to share her “incredible GIS knowledge base” with any faculty who have GIS questions or projects,” and—as evidenced by the level of support her students feel from Johnson during, between, and after their time in her courses—she carries that same concept into the classroom, where she is willing to spend what Oldakowski describes as “any amount of time necessary” to help students complete their own projects.

Additionally, she works to ensure they build a collaborative energy in the classroom, so they are equally accustomed to teamwork as well. As she greets a new class of students each semester, she tells them, “Look to your left, and look to your right. Lean on each other.”

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.