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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

NEARC Educators Day 2011: A Day of Questions

This year marked the fourth GIS Educators Day in the northeast. As usual, it was held the Sunday before the New England Arc Users (NEARC) Group Conference. This year we met at the Saratoga Springs, NY Hilton.

Kicking Off

I heard we had 55 educators registered, with a nice mix of K-12, community college and university representatives. I even saw a 4-H student and a 4-H leader in their now well-known blue polo shirts. I had the privilege of giving the opening remarks where I basically pondered a series of questions but provided no answers (pdf of my presentation slides)! I asked:
  • How might the flipped classroom be applied to geography/GIS eduction?
  • How can we teach geographic intuition so GPS-following 17-year olds don't crash their cars into trees?
  • What are the options for students not spending money on geography/GIS textbooks?
  • How should organizations like the federal government, National Geographic and Oracle best spend their dollars on geography/GIS education?
  • How might we apply gamification to geography/GIS education?
I had a great time and was pleased with the energy in the room. I was also pleased to note that about half of the attendees confirmed they had "Spoken Up for Geography." I was very disappointed that only about five knew of Mission Explore, perhaps the best Geography Awareness Week activity set ever produced (Kudos to the folks behind it: The Workshop from the UK).

Morning Sessions

Panel on "Indispensable Geospatial Professionals"
The opening panel I attended had a great title: "Educating Indispensable Geospatial Professionals for the 21st Century." The three person panel focused on different methods to create those professionals. Lara Bryant, Keene State College, described her course which serves both GIS majors and education majors. Eaach student's final project is a GIS lesson for a real client (a teacher/school). 

Tora Johnson, University of Maine at Machias explained how the number of traditional geography/GIS/cartography majors is way down at her school, but participation in the school's certificate and associate programs is way up. The certificate/associate programs are serving "incumbent" populations, people who already have jobs (typically older people). The most important asset her students take into the GIS working world is problem solving. She actually teaches it in her class (and did a paper on it at the AAG). When her students find themselves in a typical Maine GIS job, that is, as the only tech person in a rural setting, they are tapped to, and apparently can, solve all kinds of problems. 

Tao Tang, Buffalo State College summarized some of his students final projects which typically relate to their current employment and are essentially service learning. 

The list of things that can make a student "indispensable" in the workforce that I jotted down during the discussion include:
  • problem solving skills
  • service learning/internships
  • a portfolio (for example a GIS lesson produced as a pre-service teacher)
  • networking 
  • basic GIS skills
  • ability to teach oneself
I felt that these ideas matched up well to those I identified on a recent article/podcast on the topic. The one skill that employers in Maine need that is not yet met by GIS students, per Tora Johnson: data management, data processing and data stewardship. I suspect the demand for such skills reaches far beyond Maine.

John Van Hoesen, Green Mountain College
I moderated a session that began with many questions from John Van Hoesen, Green Mountain College. He asked, "Does FOSS GIS Offer More Opportunities for Developing Strong Foundational GIS Skills?" He also pondered if the goals of a course or the acquisition of specific skills was driving the teaching and learning of GIS. He was quick to point out that there was no need to toss out ArcInfo, but wanted to explore how teaching was different with FOSS. He based his exploration on The GIS 20: Essential Skills book and highlighted the differences in practicing those skills in ArcGIS and open source packages.

I'd summarize his findings as indicating the skills were "easier" and "quicker" to learn and do in ArcGIS. In one case, creating a general reference map, it took him four times as long to make it in QGIS (with which he is very familiar) than in ArcInfo. In part, I'd suggest, based on his discussion, that's because ArcInfo "does more" for you. For example, it assumes the next dataset you add is in the same projection as the last one. QGIS does not. Which leads to the question: Does convenience imply higher quality maps? Higher quality learning? Like me, he didn't have specific answers, but I think these are important questions. (If you missed Kurt Menke's article in Directions Magazine on teaching with open source, it also sheds light on teaching with open source GIS.)

In the same session, Wendy Stout, NASA Virginia Space Grant told the success story of teaching teachers about GIS via hands-on workshops. Educator awareness about GIS was definitely raised and several new courses and programs are launching across the state. The real question (and it's too soon to know the answer) is how these efforts will fare in five or ten years.

In the final session before lunch, Sharron Macklin, Williams College argued that introducing "spatial literacy" in a gentle fashion to her liberal arts college faculty is far more likely to succeed that trying to teach scary "GIS." She's developed a matrix of short to longer lesson visions for bringing that spatial literacy to the different disciplines. The sessions range from five minutes (locate areas of interest on a Web map) to hours (more in depth work with desktop GIS doing analysis).  

Afternoon Sessions

Glenn Hazelton, Northeastern University, offered a panel titled "Teaching GIS: It's More than Buttonology." The panelists (Jeffrey Dunn, U Conn Northeastern University, me, Keith Ratner, Salem State) struggled to find a path that acknowledged that some "recipe following" was required in the early GIS courses, while independent thinking and problem solving was also required. We came to no conclusion, but there was a strong sentiment that educators want students leaving GIS classes or graduating with GIS degrees, to know more than how to push buttons.
I organized a panel that aimed to show how three educators teach. Instead of talking about how we teach, the vision was to actually do a mini-lesson for the attendees. I kicked off with one of my favorite lessons on user interface design. After a very quick rundown of the principles, the attendees helped critique three different Web maps in the context of those principles. I was very pleased how well they did with only a three-minute introduction! (pdf of my slides) Alex Chaucer, Skidmore College, focused on broad ideas of finding ways to teach. Among his suggestions: taking students outside, using virtual tours or photographs to explore the landscape while indoors, and changing the mode (group work, lecture, hands-on, etc.) Jon Caris, Smith College walked the attendees through what could be a very stressful, but rewarding lesson. First groups use pen, paper, maps, acetates and a list of requirements to determine where to look for ancient artifacts. Then after some sweating and pain, they work through the analysis using mostly pre-built models in ArcGIS. Smith does not have "GIS courses" but instead tries to inject GIS into its existing courses. Caris might visit a class for a two hours and this is the type of activity he might do. I found it very appealing because it used different modes (groups, hands on, computer), was very interactive, was very focused on the problem solving process, and was less focused on pushing buttons. 

The last session of the day for me included discussion of the Cooperative Extension program and how educators in Connecticut are using Web Maps for student engagement. The name Shane Brandt, NH Extension, is a well-known in New England and I was pleased to hear from him about his mandate to serve the people of the state with geotechnology. Who takes advantage of that offer? Policemen, teachers, farmers, businessmen... To serve them (and sometimes to serve those from other states, like Massachusetts) he (NH page) and his colleagues in Rhode Island and Connecticut (national page) teach courses and share all kinds of materials. The Connecticut team addressed Google Earth, Fusion Tables and ArcGIS Online along with more focused apps (such as Historypin) that help engage students.  

Other Sessions

There were a whole set of sessions I could not attend since three full tracks were running simultaneously. A room was set aside for hands-on workshops throughout the day. Esri's Charlie Fitzpatrick was busy in there introducing educational opportunities with browser-based solutions like ArcGIS Online and presentation tools like ArcGIS Explorer. There were also workshops on ArcGIS Desktop and LiDAR aimed at educators. There was a well-plugged presentation on Aligning Your Geospatial Curriculum with the GTCM presented by the GeoTech Center.


I certainly left the event with more questions than answers, but I think that reflects the state of GIS and geography education. All of the educators in attendance, and their administrators back home, need to ponder how to best serve their students, their local community and their local businesses/employers. It's a good time to ask a lot of questions.

Special thanks to Lyn Malone, World View and Alex Chaucer, Skidmore College for making this outstanding event come together.