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Nihal Wijesekera: January’s GIS Ambassador

Nihal Wijesekera is January’s GIS Ambassador of the month! Discover how he helped to ignite the geography spark at a school in Williams Lake, British Columbia.

January’s GIS Ambassador is Nihal Wijesekera, a geographic information system (GIS) technologist at the Cariboo Regional District. Nihal recently shared with us the ambassadorial work he’s been doing with Sacred Heart Catholic School (SHCS) in Williams Lake, British Columbia.

Nihal Wijesekera is committed to supporting the use of GIS in K-12 education in British Columbia.

Can you tell me about the Geography Club at SHCS that you’re involved in?

I have been working with the Geography Club at SHCS since September 2017. During my first visit to the school I did an introductory ArcGIS Online presentation to a group of grade 6 and 7 students. As a result, I was invited to the school again by the principal Shirley Giroux.

The Geography club was founded as a way to get students at the school to participate in the Canadian Geographic Challenge. It focuses on developing fundamental geographic skills and igniting passion in students’ early academic careers. Students in grades 4-6 at SHCS are participating in this competition. They meet on the second week of every month. With the use of ArcGIS Online, they are planning to create community maps. Their aim is to create a historical site map for the Williams Lake area. They will collect data using tablets or phones and conduct analysis using ArcGIS Online. The project is planned to be completed in 2019.

Why do you think it’s important for educators to use GIS in their teaching and for student learning?

Visual learning is highly effective in education. Using GIS in the classroom, students can use interactive maps to connect lessons with real places, real events and real people. Using ArcGIS Online, teachers can adopt a project-based approach in their subjects and enable students to work on projects both individually and as a team.

What is your background in GIS education and experience?

I have over 20 years of experience with designing and implementing GIS solutions. My career has consisted of working in both the government and private sectors in a variety of GIS roles. For the last 9 years I have worked as a GIS Technologist in the Cariboo Regional District, BC, Canada. My current responsibilities include providing GIS services and products for the Regional District. I have a bachelor’s degree from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka and master’s degree in GIS from the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom.

Why is it important for you to be a GIS Ambassador?

In 2016, I attended and presented at the Esri User Conference in San Diego, California. During the plenary, I was impressed by a presentation given by three high school students who in a year learned how to use ArcGIS Online and gained lifelong skills. It encouraged me to sign up to be a GIS Ambassador, so that I can share my knowledge and experience to support schools in my community. As a GIS professional, I can introduce the students and teachers to the power of spatial technology which will allow them to see what is possible with GIS and how it is used in the real world. In the last couple of years, I have realized that young geographers have the potential to come up with better solutions for social, environmental, and political issues than my generation given the spatial tools they have access to.

How have Sacred Heart teachers and students used ArcGIS Online?

Shirley Giroux and I started with the Esri Canada Six by Six Activity and introduced most of the basic functions of the ArcGIS Online. Some teachers use ArcGIS Online as a visual aid in the classroom while creating their own maps for class units.

Students now use ArcGIS Online for real world applications in community projects and teachers are doing projects with it as a part of their curriculum. One of the more notable ongoing projects is the creation of a story map for the historical sites in the area. My role in these projects is providing GIS and technical support in-house and in the field. The data collection will be done with Collector For ArcGIS and Survey123 for ArcGIS.

What are some upcoming projects, events, or school visits that you have planned with K-12 students/teachers?

This year, I will be continuing my work with the Geography Club at SCHCS, focusing on projects like the historical sites map. In addition, I hope to extend my volunteer work as a GIS Ambassador to more schools in the area.

Nihal’s’ involvement with the school’s Geography Club has been instrumental in getting students excited about geography and GIS. The school administration and teachers have been incredibly supportive, making it a great opportunity for the school.

Last fall, after spending many hours, on weekends and time after school, with the students, teachers, and parents, a successful GIS Day was celebrated at SHCS that included 100 students with 20 of them presenting maps and giving demonstrations during the day.

Shirley Giroux, the principal at SHCS shared with us her thoughts about Nihal’s ongoing support at the school - “Nihal has been an invaluable resource for our school's staff and students. He is approachable and easy to work with and his enthusiasm for his work is obvious. He taught our grades 6 and 7 class about GIS using hands-on projects that he supported from start to finish and he helped our Geography Club create a variety of map projects (including story maps), which they then presented during their very own GIS Day! Our Geography Club will be going even a step further this year as we will be collecting local data using GPS and creating our own story map projects to once again share with the larger community and with Nihal. He is a wonderful GIS Ambassador and I am grateful to have the opportunity to work with him.”

We look forward to hearing more about the work Nihal is doing at SHCS and we will continue supporting him with his ambassadorial work.

If you are a teacher who’s interested in connecting with a local GIS Ambassador, make your request online. Read about other GIS Ambassadors who are making waves in their communities in Canada.

About the Author

Angela Alexander is a K-12 Education Resource Developer on the Esri Canada Education and Research team. She has over six years of experience working with educators across Canada. Angela is responsible for producing geographic information system (GIS) and curriculum specific resources, conducting and creating custom workshops for educators and judging and developing the question for the annual GIS Skills Ontario competition in Waterloo, Ontario. Angela has a Bachelor’s degree in Geography and Sociology from the University of Western Ontario and completed the Applied Digital Geography and GIS certificate program at Ryerson University.

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