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Sunday, November 11, 2012

NEARC Educators Day 2012: Successes but Challenges Ahead

Tora Johnson, speaking, and Lyn Malone
open the conference.
The fifth annual NEARC GIS Educators Day was held in conjunction with the fifth annual Conference of GIS Educators from Maine on Sunday, November 11. The venue was the Camden Opera House.

I spoke first in an early paper session and addressed the use of authentic learning to better engage students. I introduced four teachable moments (AFL Players Map, Satellite Sentinel/Enough project images from Khartoum bombing in Oct, bad geocoding, Apple’s use of OpenStreetMap) and had the attendees brainstorm about which standards/learning objectives, skills might be taught from this story, situation or event. (Resources mentioned in that talk)

Robb Freeman, Eastern Maine Community College shared his first foray into service learning. His school serves mostly working students and after a first class in GIS prompted interest from a group of excited students, he looked for a second course. As luck would have it, a state grant, The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, (EPSCoR) aimed at service learning related to sustainability fell into his lap. He first looked for a local partner. The three organizations he approached with his student labor all said yes! He decided to work with the Frenchman Bay Partnership and focus on their eel grass loss issue. Eel grass is important ... He started his four students off with six weeks or so of lab work in preparation for their work on data collection and mapping of the current state of eelgrass and the development of a detailed atlas of the Bay.

There were some successes:
  • student fun/learning 
  • learned of a 66% net loss of eelgrass between 1996-2008
  • build a new eelgrass data layer for 2011 
  • developed a few atlas maps
  • students offered a poster for last years conference (and won the competition!)
The biggest disappointment for Freeman was that the students did make as much progress as he would have hoped. In the end, students from the College of the Atlantic joined the class in their project. Among the things Freeman would change in a future implementation:
  • set more realistic expectations
  • make clear promises to the client
  • use less class time and get students into the field sooner
  • give students freedom to learn “how to” - but not too much
  • let the client determine the project goals
  • lead by example - by illustrating how service learning (doing real work) can be fun and rewarding
Spatial Thinking Panel
A panel on spatial thinking was far reaching and involved as many people from the audience as panelists. While we didn’t define spatial thinking, we did agree that students entering college are not prepared in term of spatial thinking and basic geography (lat/long, etc.) We touched on critical thinking skills, problem definition skills, and the possibility of teaching spatial thinking without GIS. We addressed questions from a faculty member at Fitchburg State (MA) about getting students interested in GIS. We also tried to address the challenge of students who want to learn to push buttons vs. really understand the underlying process/logic.

Matthew Bampton of the University of Southern Maine took a swerving path from FloatingSheep.org maps, to Waldo Tobler, to Wicked Problems (see the definition) to get to his work taking undergraduates into the field to see what they could do. He spoke of two projects, one covering many years to explore the islands off the main coast to better understand the underlying geological processes, and a second looking at the impact of historical climate change in the Shetland Islands. The projects all sounded very involved and included carrying and using a variety of surveying tools including total stations and terrestrial LiDAR. Bamptons response to a question regarding challenges lead him to address “what works.” Among his observations:
  • mix of men and women on field teams
  • students physically well-trained for the environment are likely to be especially successful in problem solving/creative thinking in the field
  • formal old school rules (no drinking, no smoking, no foul language, be polite, etc.)
  • selection of students just by grades did not work; better to see a full skill set
  • better to build skilled teams
  • students from small liberal arts schools tend to fair well in the field
A panel addressed the New Hampshire Esri K-12 site license (I wrote about it in August), which was fully funded and running this fall. The four players behind it were New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, New Hampshire Fish and Game, the University of New Hampshire Dept of Education and the state Geographic Alliance.

The final panel of the day was titled What Do Employers Want? The 21st Century Geospatial Workforce. It featured actual hiring managers from real Maine GIS using companies and organizations.

Judy Colby-George founded Spatial Alternatives, a small consulting company in Yarmouth, with a special interest in participatory GIS. She made these comments about potential hires:
  • she’s looking for a person who can ask the right question at the right time
  • she worries less about GIS skills, because employees follow the company workflow
  • she’s looking for students who understand the principles of GIS and who are willing to do whatever is needed (from sweeping floors to digitizing to analysis)
On the future of hiring she noted that what happens in local town budget impacts how she’ll hire. She fears future budgets may force smaller firms to close.

She shared this advice for students:
  • do group projects (that’s what real life is like)
  • best class she took had groups do same project using different software and highlight what the package did well/poorly
  • get around human resource by tracking down hiring manager
She had this advice for instructors:

Consider having students get their own project data (or give them ugly data), since again, that’s the real world.

Patrick Cunningham, is the CEO of Blue Marble Geographics based in Gardiner, ME. The software development shop has about 25 people and recently acquired World Mapper.

On hiring he noted:
  • we want to hire folks from Maine
  • people who show a skill for learning
  • GIS degree not required
  • however, a college degree is
  • applicants should have some experience (at least internship or volunteer work)
  • software developers need lots of math and heavy programming
In the near term he expects to hire a marketing person (the company has never had one before) and a sales support staffer.

His advice to applicants: Write clearly on resume and cover/intro letter. It matters!

Nate Kane works at the Maine Department of Transportation, the state’s transportation agency.

His agency is looking for:
  • people who can innovate, think for themselves
  • not necessarily specific software for a specific time but rather those who get the “how”
  • someone who can persevere and try something new
  • those who work well with others (something you can’t teach)
In the future staffers will be more involved with gaining access to and using contributed (geoaware) data. That means means collaboration and fusing of data. He also sees more roles for staffer to present what has been done or learned to a variety of agency clients.

Kane recalled the most valuable course he took (from Mathew Bampton): urban physical geography. It involved a team project, finding resources and communicating results. He reminded students that state service applications may seems intimidating - but it’s worth filling out all the forms and not leaving anything out.

Stu Rich of PenBay Solutions based in Brunswick described the company as a software development shop focusing on Web based presentation of facilities data. They have two kinds of staffers:
  • CAD/GIS analysts - who manage, enhance, correct QA/QC the data people
  • software developers - who build the software (human interaction) with stable data 
The former need data experience (data manipulation, QA/QC, etc.), AutoCAD and ArcGIS knowledge, but no need for open source experience. He explained how his clients use proprietary software exclusively: Esri, Autodesk, Oracle, etc.

The latter need not have specific experience with a language or development environment.

Rich described the move from the desktop to the Cloud, but reminds educators and applicants that apps like ArcGIS Online are young. Still, he argues, this is the direction in which the industry is going.