A Day with New England GIS Educators

By Adena Schutzberg

Ed. Note: Executive Editor Adena Schutzberg currently teaches "Trends in Geospatial Technology" in Penn State's online Master of GIS program.

I spent Sunday, November 7th at the Newport, Rhode Island Marriott with GIS educators. That's a big deal for me since I don't interact with teachers very often. We were attending GIS Educators Day, a prelude to the Northeast Arc Users Group Conference (NEARC), which started the next day. GIS Educators Day was sponsored by NEARC and the New England Geography Education Network. The Sunday timing meant many local educators could come in for the day and be back in the classroom (or back at their "other" job) on Monday morning.

Esri's Charlie Fitzpatrick opened the day with an ArcExplorer presentation (he didn't note that, which frankly I thought was great) challenging us to think about what we and our students can and will do to change the world. He highlighted the "three ships” of scholarship, citizenship and artisanship (some use leadership instead) and our role in growing all three in our students.

There were perhaps 50 or 60 attendees which made the sessions, in four parallel tracks, very intimate. Two of the sessions at any given time were hands-on labs including topics like online mapping, ArcGIS.com and using Spatial Analyst. The two other tracks were traditional presentations and panels. I chose to stay with the presentation tracks throughout the day.

I listened to Richard Quodomine, who works at New York State DOT, talk about his experiences visiting schools as a volunteer. He shared insights into teaching GIS and spatial concepts to young children. He had some great points, but I have to admit, I'd have preferred that he simply show us how he teaches the students, instead of talking about how he does it.  I think we, as educators, suffer from not seeing how other educators do their job! The big take away from the presentation was articulated by Alex Chaucer of Skidmore who said that the techniques used to get young people (in this case, grade schoolers) excited about geospatial technology are the same ones that get adults interested.

Next I heard John Van Hoesen of Green Mountain College describe what has to be the hardest GIS course in the world. He basically takes students with no background in GIS, teaches them the basics in six or seven weeks, then has them take on a variety of community-based service learning projects, with professional level deliverables. The products he showed us were truly amazing. He puts his Herculean efforts into the context of Gen Y wanting to "give back” and "make a difference.” As an instructor I appreciated the amount of effort he puts into having his students reflect on their work by keeping a journal. I did something similar with my online students last semester in my "Trends in Geospatial Technology” course at Penn State. I think making some sort of reflection a course requirement forces students to discover more than what they take away when they are in the thick of the assignment.

Lara Bryant of Keene State College spoke about work she did for her Ph.D. which involved showing how GIS fits into inquiry learning. Eileen Johnson from Bowdoin detailed her community-based projects, which were very different from Van Hoesen's, in part, because the whole class takes on a single project, with small groups doing different parts. The connection with a local client, a land trust, throughout the semester clearly made an impression on the students. Three of them continued working on the project into the next semester to finish up what they saw as crucial work. Also noteworthy: data collected by the students enabled the land trust to get a grant to fund a GIS consultant. Since I've never taught using community-based projects, my mind can only spin about the amount of work the instructors must do to set up these relationships and guide both the organizations and the students down this unpredictable path. Clearly, though, the results can be quite remarkable.

I was part of a panel titled "GIS Education - A Discussion about Process and Content” put together by Glenn Hazelton of Northeastern. I worked with Alex Chaucer of Skidmore and we also had input from Patrick Florance of Tufts and Michael Howser of the University of Connecticut. To be fair, the audience contributed as much as we did! Among the topics we touched on was ensuring that we are "teaching the right stuff.” One educator noted that she has an advisory panel to help with that. I learned that community colleges have a similar approach with local businesses to ensure graduates can serve the local community. We have an advisory board like that at Penn State for our masters program.

Another topic was one that pops up regularly: How do I get other faculty on campus interested in GIS? Florance of Tufts has a "take no prisoners” approach. He'll cold call faculty to learn about what they are doing and try to determine if GIS can help them. If not, he goes on the next one. But when he finds a potential match, he'll build a demo tuned to that academic area. It sounded quite like how we used to sell GIS when I was at Esri!

We also tackled the "recipe-based” learning that GIS labs can require. I advocated for having students bang their heads against more walls, that is, to let them see how hard it is to find good data or get the extension to run or... I was pleased to hear that so many educators include that in their classes!

The comment that intrigued me most of all came from our moderator. Hazelton suggested that there are some things that you just can't teach remotely. I challenged him to provide an example. His response was a query from a student on the order of "Where do I go from here in my GIS analysis?” The challenge, said Hazelton, "How do I know how you got there?” A fair question, but I'd argue it's the same one that would pop up when you are standing over a student's machine in a lab session. In either case, the student would need to bring the instructor up to speed, something I think is possible in both a distance learning and in-person situation. I bring this up because after my few years of online teaching, I'm more convinced than ever that there are few things that can't be taught online.

Some other observations from my day mingling with educators:

When one presenter said he'd been trying to get ArcGIS into the schools, many piped up and said "AJEE.” I felt like the only one in the room who didn't know the reference. AJEE is ArcExplorer-Java Edition for Education. I hear it doesn't work so well with Windows 7.

Several educators with whom I spoke rewrite the existing GIS tutorials, exercises, etc. or build their own from scratch. That's truly time-consuming work. One fellow was not looking forward to redoing his videos for ArcGIS 10. Bryant shared with us her "genericized” versions of Esri's AJEE online tutorial. Instead of being tied to the tutorial dataset, it's generic. I know I spent too much time updating screenshots to match the latest version of AutoCAD Map. There's got to be a better way. Maybe, just maybe, it involves better sharing of course content. Interestingly, there wasn't much discussion of open education resources beyond Esri's EdCommunity site. I wonder if these educators are aware of all the geospatial education content available under open education licenses like those we offer at Penn State?

There were lots of comments about using Google Earth or Google Maps or Quantum (I had to mentally translate that to QGIS). I really liked that these instructors, while at an Esri-related event, did seek out and use other tools alongside Arc products.

I ran into a middle school teacher who is moving from teaching English to teaching social studies. This was her first exposure to GIS. After sitting in on one of the hands-on sessions, she was feeling a bit overwhelmed. I was so happy when she told me she skipped the next formal session and used the time in the lab to work on the next chapter in the tutorial on her own. That seemed to build up her confidence. I think she was the winner of another educator's raffle, receiving a full set of Esri's Our World GIS books on CD. This is a truly giving community!

Speaking of books, I was cleaning out my shelves and brought with me perhaps 18 review copies of books that had come my way in recent years. They were snatched up very quickly. I think Muki Hacklay's Interacting with Geospatial Technologies went first. Left on the table at the end of the day: Peter Morville's Ambiant Findability. I guess that book was not as big as it might have been.

I had a truly great day of teaching and learning. I really enjoyed that education, not technology, was the focus. Frankly, technology, both for education (software like Blackboard or hardware like interactive white boards) or GIS itself, came up very little in the presentations. Does that mean that we are slowly getting beyond "technology for technology's sake” and seeing software and hardware as part of the toolbox for teaching and learning?

The other comment that stuck with me was from Sean Connin, NITLE's Program Officer for Science and Technology. I spoke at that organization's geospatial event at Skidmore last year. Connin noted that one of the suggestions/predictions I'd made then seems to be happening. I had noted (and I know I was not the first to do so) that instead of teaching GIS, there should be more teaching with GIS. That would support my contention above about education "getting past” technology.

I have one final observation that supports the "getting past” technology idea. One of Richard Quodomine's teaching tools is a photograph of a cityscape. There's the river and the elevated highway and the old and new sports stadia. He spoke to how he uses it with students to explore how cities are arranged and how they could be arranged. There was no 3D, no animation and no video: just a picture. There's a lot of geospatial education to be done and the educator's challenge is the same as it ever was: to do the best we can, with the tools we have (low and high tech), to grow those scholars, citizens and artisans Fitzpatrick described in his introductory remarks.

Published Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Written by Adena Schutzberg