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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Takeaways: Conference on GIS & Spatial Thinking in the Undergraduate Curriculum

Bucknell University, in Lewisburg, PA hosted a two day conference on GIS & Spatial Thinking in the Undergraduate Curriculum this past weekend. Here’s the full schedule.

Below are my takeaways:

Make it a point to talk to your aunt at Thanksgiving. One graduating senior at Bucknell had a conversation with his aunt at a family gathering. When she learned he was studying GIS, she noted that her company, Lockheed Martin, did that. She helped him get an internship and he has a job lined up for when he graduates this spring. (I think he’s pretty sharp, too.)

I was surprised so few of the educators were aware of PLOTS and other DIY remote sensing efforts. I’m learning that like GIS professionals, GIS and geography educators are very “heads down.” Jeremy Crampton of the University of Kentucky gave the evening keynote and highlighted the U.S. government’s geospatial intelligence efforts, use of public information to gather information about spatial patterns (Twitter), and DIY data capture via balloons and drones.

There was a recurring theme regarding how early to engage undergraduate students in GIS. Several educators noted that in the past seniors literally learned it as they were heading out the door, leaving limited resources on campus. There are efforts at some schools to leave up to half the seats in some intro GIS courses for freshman and sophomores.

Diana Sinton, University of Redlands, gives one of three keynotes.
A comment about faculty and staff “checking your ego” came up in at least two presentations. Anne Kelly Knowles of Middlebury College recapped her research on the history of iron in the U.S. and her work with a multidisciplinary team studying the geography of the Holocaust. Regarding the latter she noted that once the team got over trying to impress one another and just listened to one another, far more interesting ideas appeared. She didn’t explicitly note it, but I suspect checking one's ego when working with undergraduates in research, which she does, helps put them at ease and be more creative, too. Diana Sinton of the University of Redlands noted "checking the ego" was valuable when faculty/staff and students learn together. Redlands Ithaca College faculty are allowed to take once class per semester and having them do alongside undergraduate GIS students requires checking the ego.

There are a variety of grants from federal sources, foundations, and even the schools themselves to support GIS education explorations. Among those mentioned were funds available for study of the digital humanities, hybrid learning and local natural areas. Few presenters cited “huge” grants, but many seemed very satisfied with just a few thousand dollars. It’s worth keeping an eye out for a variety of sources. Moreover, as one presenter noted, just having another organization acknowledge the value of the work can help reinforce the value of GIS, or an educational technique, on campus.

Jeremy Donald, Trinity University and Mike Winiski, Furman University used Kolb’s concept of the the Learning Cycle (new to me) to help determine which parts of a GIS course should be done in class and which as homework. 
  • concrete experience (or “DO”)
  • reflective observation (or “OBSERVE”)
  • abstract conceptualization (or “THINK”)
  • active experimentation (or “PLAN”)
They choose to assign the first two for “homework” and the second two as in-class activities. There was some discussion in presentations and during the networking time about how to draw these lines and how to motivate students who may blow off “homework.” Robert Beutner of Hobart and William Smith Colleges shared that his GIS class was completely flipped: concepts and readings were explored for homework and class time is 100% hands on. That's something I've wanted to try for quite some time.

Service learning, despite its extra challenges for faculty (finding clients, managing expectations of both student and client, keeping students on task and moving toward the deliverable) and students (frustration, team management, limited class time) yields huge rewards. Both groups see the value, but not necessarily while they are sweating out the details.

More and more schools, especially small liberal arts schools, seem to be getting the message that GIS must be in their students’ toolboxes. Institutions are hiring staff to infuse GIS across the curriculum. Some schools, like Bucknell, seem to created enough interest and demand with one or more GIS courses, before hiring such a professional. That, however is but one model of how to grow GIS and spatial thinking across a campus. I suspect in a few years there will be a best practices document detailing all of the options and how to pick the best one for different kinds of schools. I met several educators who'd like to read it now.