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Monday, March 2, 2015

Teaching the Next Generation of MacGyvers

Image by Erik Strandberg under CC-BY-SA
I recently learned an updated version of the MacGyver TV series is in the works. One twist: the 21st century problem solver will be a woman. And, further details about her are being crowdsourced via a contest. That factoid along with a few things I've been reading have convinced me that today's instructors, whether they teach GIS or history or chemistry should think of themselves as teaching MacGyvers rather than programmers, historians or chemists.

Reading List

Let me recap a few things I've been reading that helped me form this perspective.

I'm just about done reading What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain (Harvard University Press, 2004). It's not a list of things to do in your classroom, but a compilation of some best practices for setting up an engaging and comfortable environment for learning. In particular, the successful educators studied are trying to get their students to engage in the key questions of their disciplines and use the discipline's "way of thinking" to explore meaningful problems. The same terms come up over and over again in the book: grappling with a problem, evaluating evidence, trying failing and trying again. Facts and formulae might be learned along the way, the successful teachers agree, but they are not the end in themselves whether in a chemistry, neurobiology or physics course. The other big take away: instructors must have confidence that their students can take on big challenges and learn. Plug: I'm working through this great list of great education books from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I reviewed a piece I wrote about a presentation by then Yale, now Stanford "GIS guy," Stace Maples. His main argument, which I was immediately drawn to, was to forget being an expert in anything (software, programming language, etc.) and instead to focus on knowing enough to use the tools available to address the problem.

That same idea runs through a two part series of blog posts by Lyzi Diamond. The first post shares a response to an excited mapping and GIS newbie's question: What should I learn first?. The second addresses the state of GIS education. Diamond concludes: "We should be challenging students to figure out how to solve the problems instead of showing them how to use one tool to solve a given set of problems." Her discussion prompted me to re-read the ARC/INFO Driver's License discussion from Muki Haklay from 2009.

MacGyver Skills for GIS Users

Based on these readings and some thinking, I want to share an incomplete list of the skills I'd like to see in our budding GIS MacGyvers, be they in grade school, high school, college, grad school or the workplace:
  • identify spatial patterns, describe them and explain why they matter
  • find and evaluate data for use, find appropriate proxy data if you can't find exactly what you need
  • make an effective (not necessarily beautiful or sexy) map
  • identify and use a variety of familiar (Excel, Google Maps, etc. ) and perhaps less familiar tools (Turf.js, R, Geolocate) to solve a problem
  • evaluate if a tool can do what you need it to do or if you can tweak it to do so
  • teach yourself "enough" (about a programming language, program, file format etc.) to get answer to the question
  • confidently head down a path, find it didn't work out, and head down another path
  • reflect on what you did, what you learned and what you'd do differently next time
How Instructors can Grow GIS MacGyvers

I've also been putting together an incomplete list of what instructors can do to encourage the skills noted above:
  • flip the class so labs are done in class and "lectures"(learning the basic learning such as What is a buffer?) is done at home
  • let students find ways to learn basics: read an article, read a text book, watch a video, find a case study, play with the software 
  • avoid recipe exercises and instead let students struggle with how to make that buffer or solve that problem
  • continually ask "So what?" to get at why the map/analysis matters to the student and the world at large
  • trust and expect students to teach themselves and one another
  • encourage students to touch a range of tools by default (use different software, platforms, even paper and pencil throughout the course)
  • require students to use what they've learned in GIS classes or exercises in another class; push students to see how a map can help illuminate field biology or epidemiology or economics or history