This map, part of Washington-Lee High School student Mary O'Connor's project, looks at the impact of Silver Line Metro development on the areas surrounding newly constructed stations. (Courtesy of Ryan Miller)

Last year, Samantha Brothers got an unusual assignment for a high school senior: Solve a problem for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Like other students in her class at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington County, she used geographic information systems (GIS) to analyze data and synthesize the information with maps to better understand what the future held for a wildlife refuge on the Eastern Shore.

“We got really lucky,” Brothers said of the GIS approach, which was completely different from her other classes.

Her task: Chart the potential impact of saltwater intrusion on the refuge, mapping out potential changes to the land and to endangered species if sea levels rose.

The GIS class, created by James Madison University and offered in several Virginia high schools, is designed to introduce students to this emerging field built upon geographic information — and to prevent some of the burnout so common in senior year by challenging students in a new way.

Most students come in unfamiliar with GIS, which is a way of analyzing the world and how people live their lives by adding data about demographics, business, the environment or other topics to maps, said teacher Ryan Miller. They earn college credit for the course.

Last year, he asked outside agencies if they had projects they hadn’t had time to get to, and let students tackle them. “It was a lot more difficult,” he said. “It required a synthesis of a lot of GIS skills that I hadn’t necessarily demanded of my students in the past, blending cartography with the science of GIS, trying to extract a lot of analysis, look at an area in a way that maybe hasn’t been studied.”

Students tackled demographic questions such as how a baby boom in Arlington would affect the school populations, as well as environmental, agricultural and transportation issues. One student used satellite imagery to identify wetlands. It was far more difficult than in previous years, Miller said, but students were much more interested.

“It was exciting,” Brothers said. “It was a real project for a real company, to see what they could do about this.” She contacted people in the field for data to try answer the questions, figured out how to analyze it, then presented the final project not only to her class but to Fish and Wildlife experts. Some students also spoke at a national conference for GIS professionals.

“It was nerve-racking,” she said, “but it was good to talk with people who know about what you’re talking about and are concerned with what you have to say.”