ABS Consulting Group, Inc.: Home | Blog | Resume | Speaking | Publications

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What Interests Geography/GIS Educators?

I'm not sure, but I suspect this is one of just a few blogs that focuses on geography and GIS education in general and education technology and engagement in particular. So, what are readers of this blog interested in? Based on page views for 2012 so far, here are the top 10 posts:

A Geographer Looks at EdTech - Part 1 - the iPad
Esri Announces Significant Upgrade to Educational Site License
Going One Better on Google's University Mapping Contest
A Look at Esri's SpatiaLABS GIS Lab Projects
A Phd Candidate Argues Against ArcGIS
Help! How do I use iPads to Teach AP Human Geography
Flipping Bloom's Taxonomy in Geography/GIS
Central Pennsylvania Geospatial Technology Center to Support Experiential GIS Learning
Integrating Top Tech Skills for Students in GIS/Geography Coursework
NEARC Educators Day 2012: Successes but Challenges Ahead

Some observations/hypotheses:
  • The widespread use of Esri technology likely skews the results.
  • While Esri provides lots of details about licenses and new education products, readers come here for that information and/or opinion on them.
  • Educators are interested in iPads. The sad truth about the plea for help? I saw no responses to this fellow's query here or on any blog!
  • Few education journalists or journalists in general followed up on the Central PA Center. To date I believe I was the only one.
  • Other conference coverage on the blog, besides the coverage of NEARC Educators Day, also received significant page views. I think GIS/geography educators are anxious to learn from one another, but few if any of those educators blog about or otherwise summarize what they learn at GIS/geography or education events. So, for example, I saw no coverage at all of the huge NCGE, save press releases and photos.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Students Help Revise Illinois Geological Survey Map User Interface

I received an e-mail this past week from Andrew Phillips of the Illinois State Geological Survey. He gave me permission to share it:
Adena – As I prepare to present a Distinguished Service Award to the individual who recently revised the ILOIL [Illinois Oil and Gas Resources] map service that you reviewed, I thought that you would be interested to know that your student’s feedback, as well as other information that I could distill from your class materials, had a possibly measurable effect upon the revision. I know this because my review of the Beta version received good reviews, and my review would not have been anywhere near as thorough if it weren’t for your class.

The revision, ILOIL 2.0, can be seen at http://moulin.isgs.uiuc.edu/ILOIL/webapp/ILOIL.html.
That out-of-the-blue message made my day, week and perhaps my educational career. The feedback Philips refers to came from my Geography 897G students during in the winter of 2011; that was the last course I taught at Penn State. I didn't know the term for it then, but I'd included authentic learning (working with real world problems) in that graduate course titled "Trends in Geospatial Technology." The course aimed to help working professional identify and evaluate what's new in our field. This particular user interface evaluation project was part of the exploration of new ways to interact with digital maps.

I had my students read up on the basics of user interface design (via this short document) and then turned them loose to use the principles to critique several online maps. I'd solicited the online maps via Directions Magazine's All Points Blog, asking readers who'd want such feedback to "pitch me." I received about a dozen requests and selected three for the class to explore. Philips' was one of them. With the students permission, I shared their observations and suggestions with Philips.

I was very pleased with my students work on these critiques. They stuck to the principles and offered constructive criticism and concrete ideas on how to make the map better. I confirmed that even though these were professionals already working the geospatial field, none of them had ever studied, or thought much about, user interfaces. With just a short intro, and a real world challenge, they learned quite a lot.

And, clearly their work had an impact! Here's the old Web map, the one my students critiqued. Here is the updated one, the one that help its developer/designer win the award noted above.

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.

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.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Enhancing Engagement in Geospatial Topics through Authentic Learning

Below are the key links from my presentation from NEARC Educators Day 2012 (Nov 11) titled: Enhancing Engagement in Geospatial Topics through Authentic Learning.

Notes from my Talk

Below are the notes from my session, taken by one of the attendees (thank you!). These are the standards/skills/learning objective the attendees felt could be addressed based on the "teachable moments" we discussed.

AFL Indigenous Players Map 2012

language distribution
relation of climate to cultural groups/language
relationship of native and non-native Australians
why create such a map?
connect to real world: have students document how to make the map better and share them with the AFL Players Association.

Khartoum Bomb Attack

change detection
estimate size of craters
image collection/limitations of satellite collection/timing of collection
connect to real world: confirm analysis, compare to other events to explore what kind of munition was used, share what was learned in school or local paper

Failed GPS Story

precision/accuracy - when is it important
health skepticism/tech literacy
comparison of geocoding on different platforms
how is data collected/created
connect to real world: learn how to and actual correct/submit corrections to map or data providers

Apple Uses OpenStreetMap

legal action
connect to real world: explore under which license data used in class is offered, work with non-profit or local government in finding an appropriate license

Links Mentioned

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Six Days to my NEARC Edu Presentation

I'm writing this post because I see too many tweets the few days before a GIS conference that say the same thing:
I'm writing my presentation now!
It's six days before I speak at this year's New England Arc User Group (NEARC) Educators Day up in Maine. So, what am I doing? I'm fine tuning the presentation to make sure I have enough time for the parts the attendees will do and figuring out how to document what they synthesize. The PowerPoint slides for my 30 minutes (about 22 minutes for the "presentation" and eight for discussion) are done. There are ten slides; several are blank. The key points have been nailed down for about two weeks.

Curious about my timeline for submitting and creating this brand new presentation? It's pretty much the same timing as for any presentation I do.

  • June - Submit abstract
  • August - Paper acceptance
  • Oct 1 (week of) - Draft Outline based on abstract
  • Oct 8 (week of) - Draft Slides
  • Oct 15 - Nov 3 - Practice actually giving the presentation in my office, to myself, find things that don't work like terms or examples, toss out examples, find better ones, begin using a watch to make sure timing is right, determine and integrate attendee participation (These tasks get two weeks because I ran, and then had to recover from, a 50 mile race during those weeks. For those interested: 44 minute PR at Tussey Mountain!)
  • Nov 4 (week of) - Tweak timing, set up short URL to links, review conference logistics
  • Nov 10 - Final rundown in my hotel room - presenting to the mirror.
  • Nov 11 - Conference Day!
Why take all this time for a 30 minute presentation at at tiny conference in Camden, ME? 

First off, I run a one person consulting firm. I am the product. This is one way I market my company. 

Second, I'm looking for a teaching job. I need show that I'm a good, engaging teacher - even (perhaps especially?) to other educators! This presentation is a kind of audition. 

Finally, presentations at smaller events like these have turned into keynotes at larger events, giving me more opportunities to show my "product" and make new contacts.

I'm not sure I can motivate presenters to take all the time I do in preparation for such events. However, if they can start even a bit earlier than a few days before the event, I'm confident conferences will be incrementally more valuable to those on both sides of the podium.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Academic Geography Job Ads: Really?

I've been looking for a teaching job (geography and/or GIS, online, but I'll consider a local residence position, too) for about six months. Lots of things have convinced me to apply (or not) for the various positions I've found: pay, institutional vision, course timing, etc. Most of the position descriptions do a decent job of describing both the requirements of the applicant (PhD, teaching experience, etc.) and the expected tasks the new faculty member will take on (teaching upper or lower division courses, writing courses, research, etc.).

The job posting I read today from Bridgewater State University did the former (Masters required, PhD preferred), but nowhere details what the new adjust faculty member will do or in what area of geography they might need expertise. Here's what the candidate learns from the job posting:
The Department of Geography is looking for part-time adjunct faculty for the Spring 2013 semester. ...

Applicants should be strongly committed to excellence in teaching and advising, and to working in a multicultural environment that fosters diversity. They should also have an ability to use technology effectively in teaching and learning, the ability to work collaboratively, evidence of scholarly activity, and a commitment to public higher education.
I'd guess the selected candidate will teach intro classes. I wonder why there's no indication of that or any other responsibilities. The second paragraph is clearly generic and probably appears in all faculty position postings for all departments. There's not even a link to the department home page to learn more.

It's the kind of job posting that makes me not want to bother to respond. And, that's too bad since it's a good department. I know; I taught at Bridgewater State (then College, now University) in the past. That, and only that, provides me insight and motivation to consider applying.