The government is finally open these days, but the question everyone is asking now is “for how long?”

When I think about another potential shutdown, I am reminded of the many lives affected—those hundreds of thousands of souls whose jobs would again be furloughed and, also, the many more others who rely on the important work done by these individuals.

Not long ago, it would have been nearly impossible to predict the broad effects of a shutdown, but today, with the help of Geographic Information Systems or GIS, we can pointedly identify—even down to a person—who will be impacted.

GIS is a sub-field of geography, or to be precise, an interdisciplinary field between geography and computer science, which can be used to untangle any problem that has a spatial aspect. Using it, we could, for example, map out how many Foodshare recipients live at the state and county level, and even which neighborhoods they live. This would assist local governments and non-profits in targeting those in need of food assistance during a shutdown.

A couple years into my teaching career at Carthage, I started and since then have been incorporating increasingly more service learning projects in my GIS classes. The idea is to give students direct experience with skills they are studying in the curriculum and with ongoing efforts to analyze and solve problems in the community.

A key element in these projects is the opportunity students have to both apply what they are learning in real-world settings and reflect in a classroom setting on their service experiences.

During this process, it is important to help them think bigger than themselves, in the liberal arts tradition, and appreciate the challenging and exciting moments of solving a real-world problem.

In the last year alone, using GIS, my classes have mapped out the “food desert” in Kenosha and recommended high-priority areas for new grocery stores; worked with the Kenosha County Health Department to map locations of safe and unsafe wells from field testing data and run spatial correlations with elevation and soil types; partnered with the United Way Kenosha County to map potential businesses and retiree volunteers for a third-grade reading program for four area schools; and worked with United Way Racine County, to solve walking “school bus” routes for adult volunteers to pick up students on their way to Knapp Elementary School in Racine.

Working with GIS in the classroom is not only good for the community; it’s good for Carthage—which is committed to continued collaboration with community partners—and for our students who receive a pragmatic, progressive learning experience while meeting societal needs.

Other complex current events in the news that could be analyzed and better understood using GIS include gerrymandering (redrawing congressional districts to favor one party over another), international immigration, voting at varying levels of geography, spatial-temporal dimensions of climate change, areas to be impacted as a result of US-China trade deal, and even the countries of birth/citizenship and primary training for top Australia Open tennis players.

As I put the finishing touches on my GIS courses for the spring semester, I happily anticipate continued partnerships with the people and organizations of Kenosha and Racine counties to build a stronger community, together.

Wenjie Sun is an associate professor of geospatial science, computer science and Asian studies at Carthage College.

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