Virginia Western students gain hands-on GIS experience at NASA center

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Virginia Western Community College students and faculty recently visited NASA Langley Research Center to conduct field work and gain a valuable education experience while supporting NASA’s needs for capturing data.

Nine students and three faculty members from Virginia Western, Thomas Nelson Community College and Dabney S. Lancaster Community College participated in the field work. The students were involved with a service learning project that is a component of a distance learning geospatial information systems (GIS) course being offered by Virginia Western. This course was a pilot to inform future GIS courses with a service learning project.

“I love having students come to NASA. They bring such an enthusiasm that helps renew our outlook on work, and the benefit to NASA is having additional data captured that we would not normally have time to do ourselves,” said Mary Gainer, the historical preservation officer for NASA Langley’s Environmental Office. “Everybody wins!”

The interdisciplinary distance learning class was provided through partnerships between professors David Webb (Virginia Western), Cherie Aukland (Thomas Nelson) and Brian Keiling (Dabney Lancaster). Students from GIS and forestry pathway programs participated in the field work and teamed together to collect and map data. Using GPS data collectors, the students gathered information on tree species, health, maintenance recommendations and tree size. The data will be incorporated into NASA Langley’s tree inventory maintained in GIS. Students also completed an analysis of the data to provide maps of problem tree locations, species concentration and relative tree size.

“I really enjoyed being able to work with the forestry students. I learned from them, and I hope they learned from me,” said Virginia Western student Brittany Johnson. “Being able to tour NASA Langley was a great treat. Our sponsor Mary Gainer was awesome. To see how passionate she was about her work inspired me to fight for my dream job.”

A bonus for the project was the measurement of two trees that were entered into the Virginia Big Tree program. A sassafras tree on Center is ranked as the third largest of its kind in the state while a large white oak will rank within the top 10 trees statewide.

“I would have to say that it was an amazing learning experience for me. It was wonderful to get hands-on experience using tools that collect the data that goes in the databases and creating the databases. I gained first-hand field experience with the power of GIS,” said Virginia Western student Heidi Phillips. “Not to mention, I learned quite a bit about urban forestry. I liked the fact that I now know several more possible opportunities for employment in the GIS realm. It seems endless.”

“David, Cherie, and Brian are fantastic instructors and really took the leadership on making this course happen,” said Chris Carter, VSGC Deputy Director. “We are pleased to be working with them and NASA Langley on this project to provide a great experience for these students.”

The field trip was sponsored by the GeoTEd (Expanding Geospatial Technician Education Through Virginia’s Community Colleges) project. GeoTEd scholarships funded the students’ tuition and travel. GeoTEd is administered by Virginia Space Grant Consortium in partnership with Virginia Western, Thomas Nelson, Southwest Virginia Community College, Virginia Community College System and Virginia Tech. NASA Langley, a VSGC member, is working with the GeoTEd team to offer more service learning projects in the future. GeoTEd partners intend to repeat the class and expand it to all of the 23 Virginia community colleges in future semesters. More information can be found at

Virginia Western is offering the course again this summer. Important dates and information on how to register can be located at

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