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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Unengaged at NEURISA Day 2012


On Monday I drove for 90 minutes to attend the NEURISA Day conference in Sturbridge, MA. Then I sat in the same room for seven hours. Then I drove home. I was exhausted. Not my body so much, but my brain.

I’d been pretty much passively listening for those seven hours. And, while the content was valuable (see my coverage in All Points Blog), the presentations were just that, presentations. Experts and practitioners stood up front and talked and showed slides. Some presenters were very funny, but that’s not engagement. At least one presenter showed a demonstration, but that was 100% passive, too.

Making Change is Hard

I know it’s hard to change how things have been done, but I’m pushing 50 and I can’t go another 15 or 20 years sitting in dark rooms watching slides go by. I really can’t. How can we fix this? Well first, read this blog post summarizing what eighth graders suggested their teachers do to be engaging. (I discussed the findings in some depth here.) Everyone is an eighth grader when it comes to engagement and these students have it spot on!

How then could the presenters at NEURISA Day 2012 have used some of those ideas to better engage the audience? Let me set the stage. We had about 100 people at 15 or so round tables. We had a whole separate extra room where the exhibitors were and another one across the hall. Many, maybe half of the attendees has some electronic device and free Web access and we all had paper and pencils. There was a big screen and projector at the front of the room.

Turning NEURISA Day 2012 into Engaged Learning

The first set of sessions were on the basics and applications of LiDAR. I have yet to find an activity detailed on the Web that physically illustrates how a laser pulse leaves the sensor and comes back. I can imagine having individuals become laser pulses and walking until they “bump into” something before returning. I can also imagine using devices in people’s hands to look at LiDAR data or (data derived from them) in say ArcGIS Online and teasing out how to use it, analyze it, or make sense of it. You could have groups of tables or all the tables compete in attempting the same simple task. Or maybe have tables sketch what a lidar cross section of a specific type of physical feature would look like - a football stadium, an airport hanger, a McDonalds? Or, groups could brainstorm about how to use LiDAR data to address a real issues - like moving the Space Shuttle through the streets of Los Angeles.

The presentation on Free and Open Source GIS might have had the audience try to tease out the key criteria a small town in New Hampshire might have for selecting a free piece of GIS software. Would every table come up with the same list? Could each table fire up one piece of software and report back on how hard it was to import a shapefile (or other basic task) just to get their hands on and look at the different offerings? Could one table research exactly what the different between free and open source is and report back to the group? (That issue was not really addressed.)

The discussion of UASs centered around the Federal Aviation Administration restrictions. Maybe instead of presenting them, groups could have pretended to be the FAA and come up with their own list of restrictions. Then we could compare them to what the FAA has on the books currently and plans for the future.
If the goal of one of the mobile presentations was to show how easy it is to build mobile forms, why not give a five minute overview and have each table create a new form? One table could create a form for the city dog catcher, another for the arborist, a third for sanitation, etc.?

I know thinking through and actually implementing these type of hands on activities takes more time than re-using an existing PowerPoint (or making a new one the night before the conference). I know I’d learn more and I bet instead of being exhausted at the end of seven hours, I’d be enthusiastic. If someone had asked me what I’d done that day, I’d say, “First I was a laser pulse, then I was an FAA staffer setting up regulations for UASs, and finally, I built and app for the city dog catcher!”

One Final Thought

What sticks with me from my day in Sturbridge? A story Gerry Kinn of Esri told me. He was in a graduate course with Mark Monmonier, the well-known geographer/cartographer/author from Syracuse.

Monmonier noted that people only remember things if they happened in some unique way. So, he shared his pet peeve with his students regarding choropleth maps without normalized data. He made his students take an oath that they would never do that. They stood on their desks, hands rasied and then hands on heart to affirm their commitment. Then they signed a document to that effect and Monmonier affixed the seal (it has an mammalian seal on it per Kinn) to the paper. That sounds engaging, physically interesting and clearly, memorable. Gerry Kinn was certainly engaged that day of class!