Grant Funds at Work
Solis Team to Study 'Mapathons'
For Veterans' Transition to STEM
Story by Hope Lenamon
Texas Tech University researchers were recently awarded a $300,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation for their project "Informal Learning Pathways through Mapathons for Military and Veteran Communities."
The team, Patricia Solis, David Hankins, Dennis Patterson, David Lewis and Melanie Hart, is working to understand how informal learning experiences shape pathways for military and veteran communities to transition to formal science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education opportunities and, ultimately, to the civilian workforce. Their research is a collaborative effort between eLearning & Academic Partnerships, the Office of the Provost, the Department of Political Science and the Department of Geosciences.
"Veterans have often been overlooked as candidates for focused, but informal, STEM learning opportunities," said Patterson, executive director of Academic Programs for Texas Tech Satellite Campuses in the Office of the Provost. "Given that Texas Tech University has made great gains in being a military friendly campus, we focused this project on providing such an opportunity for veterans. The project will accomplish this by giving veterans the opportunity to learn geospatial and mapping technology in special mapathon sessions. These will be held at Texas Tech University's multiple satellite campuses early in 2019."
Solis, an adjunct research associate professor of geography in the Department of Geosciences, is no stranger to the world of mapathons. She is the co-founder and director of YouthMappers, a global network that gives students around the world the opportunity to document under-mapped parts of the world by using open geospatial technology to directly address humanitarian and developmental needs. YouthMappers uses OpenStreetMap, a crowd-sourced platform that allows people to edit maps in different places around the world.
The work of YouthMappers can be especially helpful in times of environmental and humanitarian crises like areas affected by the refugee crisis in Sudan, areas affected by malaria in Africa and those affected by the Nepal earthquake in 2015. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, the YouthMappers at Texas Tech helped fill in maps of the area where aid organizations needed more data for recovery efforts.
Solis said by offering a related service-learning course on open mapping for students at Texas Tech, she began to see connections between the skills needed to improve maps and those of military and veteran students in her classroom.
"They have dealt with some of these technologies before, they very much know how to read and use maps, but most importantly they also have an amazing service oriented mindset," Solis said. "That experience led me to think we really could build something that served as a pathway for students to become engaged. We believe that by introducing these kinds of mapathon events to military and veteran students across the state of Texas, they can discover how their experiences can propel them into meaningful educational and employment pathways."
She added that linking open technologies with real humanitarian need not only serves those whose lives are impacted by crisis, but also has a profound effect on the mappers by giving them an opportunity to serve and use their skills.
The project is a highly personal one for many members of the research team. Lewis and Hankins are both veterans.
"As a veteran myself, I admittedly have somewhat of a personal agenda to serve other veterans and military members in whatever way I can," said Hankins, senior director of marketing for eLearning & Academic Partnerships. "I think it is part of the DNA of the men and women who serve or have served to give back, and the award for this research grant will help provide another means for that to happen."
Lewis, a retired United States Air Force colonel and faculty member in the Department of Political Science, is also excited about the opportunities this research could bring the military and veteran community. He said he was proud to work at a research university that has such close ties to those who served the U.S.
"Texas Tech University has exceptionally strong ties to our surrounding veterans, and this will be yet another opportunity to engage those veterans and connect them to exceptional programs and mapping techniques," Lewis said.
Solis added this grant will give her team the chance to make a difference in the lives of a population that may need some guidance on what to do after life in service. She and her team plan to teach military and veterans how to create these new maps using the software, ask them questions and study their motivations in order to improve universities' approaches to helping military and veteran students.
"We are going to share what we find with many other universities around the country, and I think Texas Tech can be a leader in understanding how we can improve these pathways by leveraging skills already in place," Solis said. "There is a lot of promise of what we could actually learn from this kind of engagement, about what we could practically do, how we could serve the military and veteran communities better in Texas and across the United States."