Educational Product Review: AGIS (A Geospatial Industry Series)

By Adena Schutzberg

Ever since the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced that there will not be enough trained geospatial technologists in the coming years, there's been a "land rush" to grow new practitioners. There are efforts aimed at the youngest students (visit the kids section of the NGA website, linked off the main one), at those a bit more mature (for example, the KidzOnline DOL funded, but not yet online training program) and at those specifically looking to jump start a geo-career (new online GIS certificate programs abound). Some of these are government funded; others are from entrepreneurial businesses reacting to demand. No matter the backing, we in the industry need to keep an eye on these efforts to ensure they are teaching the skills we need now and into the future.

With these ideas in mind, I contacted Digital Quest to ask for a review copy of the first book in that company's new series (press release): AGIS (A Geospatial Industry Series). "This product," says the website, "examines an entire industry/career cluster to show students how much GIS impacts and improves those industries. These courses feature detailed narratives about the relationship between the particular industry and GIS. In addition, guided lessons and scenarios give students hands on experience with a variety of applications of GIS using ESRI's ArcGIS Software. The career clusters are based on the "16 Career Clusters" developed by the NCTEF/NASDCTEc (National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium)."

The first book is, appropriately, an introduction. The first "thematic" book, expected soon, will focus on the "Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources" cluster. The vision here is to tie geospatial technology to careers, not to introduce it as "just" technology. The series is targeted at high schools and colleges to serve young adult and adult learners. The course may be used as part of IT or career curricula. There's a clear focus on the marketplace and jobs, and an expectation of a solid familiarity with computer hardware and software.

I received the Teacher's Edition ($129) which includes the student materials and the teacher's PowerPoints, notes, data, exercises and answers to exercises. The student book ($29) includes teacher PowerPoints, exercises and data. Educational institutions or individuals must gain access to the software on their own. The first two lessons of the ten provided define geospatial technologies and introduce not only GIS, but GPS, remote sensing and surveying. The latter three disciplines are not discussed again in the lessons in this version, but they are to be more integrated in a future version. This will help the series live up to its title of "A Geospatial Industry Series," and not be 100% GIS-centric.

The first "hands-on" chapter introduces ArcMap, the software used throughout. I found the stretched "six degrees of separation" scenario confusing and disconnected from the rest of the chapters which offer neatly designed problems for GIS.

The "meat" of the program includes the seven lessons which illustrate the use of GIS in a variety of fields or, as they are termed here, "Career Clusters":
  • Business Management and Administration
  • Transportation, Distribution and Logistics
  • Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources
  • Law, Public Safety and Security
  • Health Science
  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics
  • Hospitality and Tourism
Each lesson presents a recipe for exploring data (all real data) or solving a spatial problem (only one, involving mosquitoes, is a real scenario). The first lesson explores census data, but only in the very last short paragraph nudges the student to consider how those data and their analysis would be helpful to businesses. Another lesson involves geocoding addresses to locate students and then assigning them to schools via a "spatial join." There's a site selection lesson, finding prime agricultural land. Again, a short paragraph at the end of the exercise notes these techniques could be used in other areas.

I fear the underlying focus on teaching the technology overshadows the use of GIS and its way of thinking in jobs in the different career clusters. This is brought home in the teacher's overview of each lesson, presented in a blue box titled: "What will you teach?" The bullet points are not about, say public health and safety, in lesson 7 (pdf), but rather: "editing layer properties, querying data layers, creating a map layout, exporting and printing a map layout" The very last note in lesson 10, on Tourism and Hospitality, doesn't focus on GIS use in that arena, but on a software feature: hyper-linking. "Hyper-linking can be used to enhance several different applications of geospatial technology. It is a fast and easy way to make a map come alive."

I'm the first to admit that my expectations are high. First off, it is possible that desktop GIS technology is still too complex to use casually. In reality, actually pushing the buttons may have to be the focus of such a course, despite other intentions.

Second, I know the complexity of nailing down data sets and checking procedures for such lessons. I know, too, that at least some instructors of these lessons will be shaky on technology and even shakier on how students can take it to real world jobs. Keeping these challenges in mind, this introduction, and the series as a whole, is quite an accomplishment.

The good news is there's room for instructors at all levels to take this core material and enhance it with other exercises. Off the top of my head, I'd take the "ag lesson" about site location and attach it to the "demographics lesson": find a county/municipality that might be appropriate for a new car dealership or the like. And, I'd try to link students up with local users who do what they've done in the lessons.

There are some errors in the text. The idea that there is more than one GPS system, for example, is in error. The U.S. Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) is called the Global Positioning System. Russia's GNSS is called GLONASS. Europe is, perhaps, building Galileo. I was a bit disappointed to read that remote sensing "usually refers to viewing something from a distance." Sensors of all types are exploding on the scene and perhaps the most interesting are not capturing visual information but other key data: traffic, air quality, noise pollution, etc.

On the whole, this is a great first step away from "teaching GIS" and toward "exploring careers in geospatial technologies." I look forward to the rest of the series.

Published Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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