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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Potential AP GIS&T Course: Thinking Out Loud

The Association of American Geographers (AAG) has posted a request to identify educators and others who want to work on a proposal for a new high school Advanced Placement course in Geographic Information Science and Technology (GIS&T).

The original request came from the College Board to the Geography Education National Implementation Project (GENIP), a coordinating committee with representatives from the AAG, National Geographic Society, the National Council for Geographic Education, and the American Geographical Society. GENIP already overseas the Advanced Placement Human Geography and Geography Standards initiatives. AAG is taking the lead in organizing a response for the GIS&T course.

I've been rolling the idea around it my head: Is an AP GIS&T course a good idea? Will it help GIS&T grow in academia, research and the marketplace? I've not come to any conclusions, but below I share some thoughts and questions.

The Whole AP Thing

I attended grades K-12 in a terrific public school system in Massachusetts. I took AP Biology in ninth grade and at the end of the year took the AP test. I took more AP classes and tests in the next three grades: AP U.S. History, AP English, AP Chemistry, AP French Language, AP Calculus. I think the school offered a few more AP classes including physics and Spanish.

In college I used the AP credentials to by-pass some required courses. I was very happy not to have to take a language again. Mostly, though, I repeated courses. In particular I repeated chemistry and most of calculus in my first year. I can't say that was a bad thing: I was not bored and really increased my depth of understanding on my way to a chemistry degree.

A savvy friend pointed out that my choice to take these courses and the respective AP exams probably amped up my high school bio and helped me gain admission offers from several top colleges. The Princeton Review thinks so, too.

Would I have put myself through the stress of these tests knowing how things played out? Probably not. But I'd take the AP courses. In my school the courses were taught by some of the best teachers; I suspect teaching college level content to to college level students is quite attractive. I send a special shout out to two of my favorites, Ms. Hession (English) and Mr. Marks (chemistry).

What's the point of AP courses and AP exams?

The selling points include (per the College Board):
  • showing a student is ready for college level work
  • placing out of some college coursework
  • getting actual college credit for the high school course
  • gain college skills
There are detractors (example) who note these disincentives among others:
  • not really college level work
  • the non-profit College Board goes after profits
  • AP curricula create formulaic dull courses

The Rationale for AP GIS&T

The AAG news release cites four reasons (rationale) to explore such a course at this time:
  • Access to geospatial technologies such as GIS has never been greater. 
  • The GIS&T industry is rapidly growing and evolving. 
  • GIS&T is an ideal context for interdisciplinary learning. 
  • GIS and other geospatial technologies facilitate the analysis and visualization of complex data in order to problem solve. 
I can't argue with any of these points. I was disappointed that the "access" issue cited Esri's commitment to ConnectED (AAG is partnering with the company on the GeoMentor program) but not the wide availability of mature open source software.

I was also disappointed that in the discussion of GIS&T course, the AAG news release suggested there is more than one GPS constellation  [emphasis mine]: "GIS&T encompasses Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Global Positioning Systems (GPS), virtual globes, mobile mapping applications, geographic visualizations and other locational technologies for the display, management and analysis of spatial data."  There is one Global Positioning System, the U.S. constellation of satellites. The generic term for such constellations is Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS).

There's also a statement in the news release, though not among the numbered rationale points, discussing the success of the AP Human Geography (APHG) course/exam.
At present, APHG is one of the most successful and fastest growing AP courses. In 2014, 136,448 students enrolled in the APHG course (compared to 3,272 students in 2001). 
Do note that not everyone who takes the course, takes the test. About 113,000 took the test in 2013. Nearly 400,000 students took the most popular test, the AP English one. To get a sense of the numbers of test takers of popular AP tests see this table.

Other New AP Courses/Exams? Other pathways to college credit?

I wondered what "new" AP exams have popped up in recent years. I did find that AP Computer Science Principles will be offered in 2016. There have been computer science exams for several years.

I wonder what prompted the College Board to ask GENIP about an AP GIS&T course proposal. It'd be nice if the College Board and the AAG could share that backstory to increase transparency.

I think we need to evaluate the AP route to GIS&T college credit in the context of other pathways. Why not grow the Geospatial Semester, which in many ways achieve the same goals? It's also possible to integrate online GIS&T undergraduate courses into high schools. But, neither of these options would involved the College Board.

Creating (Another) Document "Defining" GIS&T

We have several documents that detail what GIS&T "is" and what its workplace skills should be. We have the now being updated GIS&T Body of Knowledge and the newly updated Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM). And, GISCI is preparing the first iteration of an exam for its GISP credential. Several vendors have processes in place to certify those who know its wares (Esri, Safe, Autodesk). There's even talk of an open source GIS/OSGeo credential; there are details in this webinar discussion from back in February.

Will defining a GIS&T course further nail down what is and what is not within the discipline(s)? Is this a valuable exercise? While I like the idea of such of a package I wonder if that will constrain, rather than open, GIS&T curricula.