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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Geographer Looks at EdTech in 2013 - Part 5 - Coding and Making

--- This post is the fifth in a ten part series examining top 2013 trends in education technology in the context of GIS and geography education. ---

Watters identifies two trends, learning to code and the "maker" movement, as her fifth topic in education technology for 2013. There are number of ideas and questions in her discussion. These were of particular interest to me:
  • Does everyone need to learn to code? 
  • How do we teach coding? When, age wise, does it fit in a curriculum? 
  • Are some, notably women, not welcome in the coding world? 
  • Where does "making" fit into learning? 
  • Can it help address the STEM crisis (real or not)? 
GIS Education and Coding

I wrote about the value of coding for those looking to be GIS users and those with other roles in and around the technology last year. If anything, I feel more strongly now than I did then about everyone but the most casual GIS user getting some hands on coding experience. From an education standpoint, my sense is that every course beyond the intro one (and perhaps that as well) should include some programming. It might be as basic as rewriting an existing script to use new data or different specific parameters, but it should be in there.

How do we teach coding in the GIS education space? Should we even do so? Or should we leave it to the computer science department in a high school or college? Some would argue that having GIS students learn GIS programming within a geography or GIS department is, well, too GIS-y and perhaps not as rigorous as it might be. Others argue that computer science programming is too generic.

One thing I can say for sure is that the required programming course in the Penn State Masters in GIS program sparks many students to describe it as "hard" or worse. I sympathize, but also suspect that the challenge is due in some cases to this being the first time the student has programmed…ever. I think that here in the U.S. we need to follow the U.K.'s lead. Over there computer science is already part of the K-12 curriculum.

But, there is good news on the GIS programming front. It looks like more GIS education programs, including undergraduate ones, are seeing the value of teaching coding. Why just today I read how Eastern Illinois University is adding a GIS programming course.

As for programming being exclusionary, yes I fear that's still the case in many classrooms and workplaces. The reasons are many. I'm hopeful that as women in GIS are finding their way safely to the top levels in GIS (that was my sense of panel on the topic at GIS Pro this year), the same will soon be true in GIS programming circles. I know there are many organizations that offer "girls only" or "women only" programming courses. I'm thinking out loud here… I wonder what the turnout would be for a "women's only" programming workshop at say GIS Pro in 2014?

GIS Education and Making

While "making" tends to be a form of teaching and learning related to engineering of various sorts, I think the ideas behind making apply across the curriculum. In English class writing a story or poem is  making. In gym class building a human pyramid is making. And of course, in biology class, collecting water samples from various places around campus, determining their pH and making of map of the data is making.

That's why I was so pleased that this year's 4-H's National Youth Science Day effort involved "making" as it relates to GIS and geography. There was even a "paper exercise" for groups where computer technology was not available. On the other hand, I read far too many reviews of GIS Day events where students and other visitors listening to lectures and watched demos. That's NOT making.

If making can bring anything to education in general, and geography and GIS education in particular, it's the "hands-on, make things, do things" perspective on teaching and learning. The dryness of geography education was driven home to me just today.

I was asked to review a chapter in new college level human geography textbook. Goodness it was dry! And, the innovations were, well, far from innovative. Let me contrast that with another experience.

A few weeks ago I attended a birthday party for seven year old twins Max and Theo. Among their favorite books is a paperboard one that has a see through human body embedded in it. Each page explores one "layer" of the body. They've had it for a while, since before they were reading. But now, they read. And, on this day, Max realized that on each page there was an experiment you could do! We convinced him to pass on the one that showed the difference in thickness of blood and water (too messy) but he did get into the muscle memory one. The experiment involves standing in a doorway and pushing your palms against the door frames for a minute. Afterward, you step out of the doorway and your arms magically rise!

Why don't college textbooks offer the same kind of engagement for the adult student?

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