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Mapping for change

Posted 8 a.m. Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Students, Emma Everett and Courtney Osmek, use their GIS knowledge to make a difference in the La Crosse community.

Student-led mapping initiative creates resource for those facing food insecurity

Hands-on projects enhance education by pushing students to apply the skills they learn beyond the classroom.  

Two UW-La Crosse students, Emma Everett and Courtney Osmek, took advantage of an opportunity to use their Geographic Information Systems (GIS) knowledge to make a difference in the La Crosse community.  

“The goal of our project was to create a user-friendly web map that anyone can access to see the locations of food resources throughout the county,” explains Osmek, a junior majoring in geography with an emphasis in GIS and a minor in environmental studies.

The project allowed students to gain real-world experience while helping to meet a community need. 

The original proposal came to Gargi Chaudhuri, professor of geography and environmental science, through the La Crosse County Health Department. The project allowed students to gain real-world experience while helping to meet a community need. 

“I had never been interested in academic research,” says Everett, a senior majoring in geography with a GIS concentration, “but this independent study was a social project that had potential to really help people in the community. The thought of being able to see the impact of my work within the community motivated me throughout the entire project.” 

The initial proposal was to map the community gardens around town, but Everett and Osmek took the task a step further. 

“While we were brought on only to map community gardens in the county, we ended up mapping all the noted food pantries, meal services and financial resources that serve different members of the community,” Everett says. 

The students showcased their work to community collaborators at a Food Partners meeting this spring. 

“The Food Partners meeting really showed me how bringing people together and discussing these food issues is a great way to start making change happen,” Osmek says. “Not only do they focus on goals for the future, but specifically on the actions they need to take to accomplish those.” 

In addition to honing major-specific technical skills such as ArcMap and ArcGIS Desktop and Online software, Everett and Osmek say the project allowed them to grow in other ways. 

“This project was an invaluable addition to the rest of my education at the university. It was the first real leadership position I had ever taken on, as I was technically the head of the project,” Everett says. “It was an exceptional hands-on way for me to learn how to delegate tasks, and my partner and I had to learn how to manage our time, problem solve, and divide the work equitably. We gained oral and written communication skills as we had to discuss the project, objectives and progress not only between ourselves and our project advisor, but with the health department and members of the community.”

Chaudhuri and students walking through a La Crosse community garden.

Chaudhuri explains that, in addition to serving as a one-stop shop to view existing resources, the map has the potential to be used by the health department and their partners as a tool for current and future resource planning, finding gaps and needs for services. 

Lisa Klein, UWL community engagement coordinator, regularly sees the benefits that hands-on projects bring to students and the community. 

“Putting skills learned in the classroom to work in the community is a win-win for our students and our community partners,” says Klein. “Our students graduate with essential skills and learning experiences that make them marketable when they enter the workforce.”  

Everett, who will be graduating on May 12, says, “I am incredibly grateful for my partner, Courtney, and our academic advisor, Dr. Chaudhuri. Their help and the relationships and connections I have built during this project have improved my overall experience at UWL.” 


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