Collaboration & Agility - The Keys to Geospatial Technology Curriculum Development

November 18, 2020

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For as long as I have been a geographer, I have been building curriculum and teaching it to audiences ranging from kindergartners to experienced professionals. Not being a professional educator, I won’t write a pedagogical guide, but I can share lessons learned from my own career and those of my esteemed peers about developing and delivering geospatial technology curriculum. 

 “I want to come out an expert!”  

 Starting my master’s at Oregon State, that’s what I expected, and I have heard many students say the same over the years. As I learned, it doesn’t work that way.  You have to tough it out through projections, database design and cartographic principles. And guess what? By the time you graduate, the software you learned may have changed.  

 When I landed my first GIS job, starting a GIS program from the ground up, I was expected to be the expert, and I barely knew ArcView! These data are in State Plane; these are in UTM — they don’t line up. How do we get the assessor’s attribute information attached to these CAD parcels? Grump, grump, why didn’t my program have more hands-on labs!?  

 However, the foundational concepts I learned in those “boring” classes gave me the confidence to dive in, and I learned on the job. While my first maps were far from pretty (too many neatlines and too many fonts), I knew what the end products were supposed to be and delivered them. 

 That is what I advise new entrants into the geospatial technology world. As a kid, I always beat my brother in maze games because I started at the end and worked my way backwards. He called it cheating; I called it lateral thinking. That’s what I have learned from most successful curriculum developers: Start with the question. Rote exercises will teach them how to use the software, but often I was asked by students young and older, “Why are we doing this?” 

 “Keep your knees bent!”  

 That’s a mantra from Charlie Fitzpatrick, which I first heard at T3G in 2010, and I share that with students. The software is always changing. If you know the question, you'll find a way to answer it, even if you pull your hair out in the process. 

 Most of us educators have had to adapt to online learning, and discussing that pivot will be the subject of a future article. Before that pivot, though, all of us have had to adapt our curriculum in some way as the technology and software changes.  

 Where are the bears

 My team at the National Park Service (in Oregon, Montana, Hawaii and Seattle) developed a one-day course that could be freely distributed and either instructor-led or self-led. The goal was to use a single question — “Where are you most likely to find grizzly bears and black bears in Glacier National Park?” — to take students through a self-contained scenario using all the basic tools in ArcGIS Desktop. Instead of having stand-alone exercises for each concept — buffers, spatial selection, queries, etc. — each lesson built on the previous one. (Answer: Black bears roam residential areas; grizzlies stay away from people.) 

 In the early 2000s, I was working both with Esri and the University of Washington. As a technical marketing analyst for Esri, my job was to build software demos, basically delivering one-way curriculum to a specific audience. There were geologists, marine scientists, utility workers and many others. I turned several of these into classroom exercises, and several exercises became demos and ArcUser tutorials, a few of which still survive today.  

 Foundational knowledge, hands-on skills or just make it fun

 That is a question with which we all struggle, and the answer depends on the format and audience. Are we teaching to experienced professionals like surveyors and land-use planners, or geospatial technology novices such as firefighters and teachers? Are we teaching to freshman history students or third graders? How much time do we have — a four-year program, a single semester, three days or 45 minutes? 

 In Federal Service, I taught many courses for various agencies. Most were turnkey operations, with the curriculum already developed and well-vetted. One was team-taught, a three-day “GPS for Incident Responders.” It was mostly a field-based course so we set up a pin-flag “fire,” with an active perimeter, containment lines, water spots and other features. 

 However, before the students (all professionals) did the fun data collection, they had to learn the “boring stuff.” We discussed datums, projections and (cruelly) had them do manual coordinate conversions at the end of the first day when their brains were already full. The next day, in the field, they all had to reset their GPS units to the correct coordinate system — and they knew why. 38.4848 degrees is not the same as 38 degrees 48.48 minutes. 

 Sometimes we don’t have the time to delve into foundational knowledge, but even a small amount of exposure can lead to an interest and then to deeper learning. Esri offers a hands-on learning lab at conferences, with self-guided exercises that only take an hour or so.  In the NPS course, the final maps were of varying quality, but there wasn’t time to discuss the nuances of annotation and labeling. Nevertheless, they knew where the tools were. 

 Supply and demand 

 Curriculum development and delivery is focused on the audience, and this can be challenging.  UAS is an excellent example. There are many programs out there, and they are incorporated into programs ranging from civil engineering to forestry.  

 In K-12, geography can be integrated into many other topics that meet state and national standards. Measuring scale meets math standards. Drawing a map of where your Thanksgiving meal comes from meets social science standards, and mapping water quality points ties into science standards. The GISetc team’s book, “20 Minute Lessons for Young Explorers,” guides teachers through techniques to integrate geography into many standards. 

 You don’t have re-invent the wheel, but sometimes you may have to realign it

 My first online teaching experience was also with UW. After 9/11, the Department of Urban Design & Planning developed an online master's in Infrastructure Planning and Management, which still exists almost twenty years later. GIS fundamentals was a prerequisite, which was my assignment. 

 Many lessons were learned in the first offering. It was supposed to be plug-and-play, with the exercises already built. Unfortunately, in the haste to launch, the lessons weren’t well-vetted. When students reached lesson four, they needed data that they didn’t build until lesson six. We stopped new enrollment and put current students on hold until we corrected the exercises. 

 This illustrates one of the challenges of a team-based instructional model. When the instructor hasn’t developed the curriculum that s/he is delivering, there can be a disconnect between the intention of the lesson and the implementation of it.  

  Dr. Ritter explained this when I was a lab instructor for his intro to GIS course at the Oregon Institute of Technology. On Tuesdays, the exercises were “recipes” from the Esri textbook: a teaspoon of roads, a cupful of imagery, mix and bake according to instructions. On Thursdays, we did the additional exercises that he developed.  

 To me, his instructions seemed vague, and students were getting frustrated. I diplomatically offered to make them more step by step, and he (diplomatically) said NO. He explained to me and to the students that he designed them to be challenging. Instead of just starting at the beginning, the students had to read through the exercise and identify the question, then solve it with the tools they already knew how to use. They had to figure out which tools and operations to use, and in what order. 

 It takes a village. 

 From Pre-K to post graduate, curriculum development is both an art and a science. Like all teaching endeavors, it can only succeed with persistence, ingenuity and teamwork. 

 Fortunately, there are wonderful resources to help us along. With a good team, you have a collective mind greater than the sum of its parts. As I learned with my first online course at UW, the disconnect between course developer and instructor can lead to trouble. Conversely, a team in frequent communication, like my groups at NPS and OIT, builds new ideas and with constructive criticism, creates and delivers a better product.  

  I can’t say enough good things about the T3G program and the GeoTech center, and to expound upon their resources is well beyond the scope of this article.  For anyone building geospatial technology curriculum from scratch, the GeoTech model courses are a great place to start. These groups, and many others, are the models of collaboration. 

 The power of geography and the tools we use to teach it is the ability to answer questions. From GISetc’s “20 Minute Lessons...,” to John Ritter’s final project, to the bears in Glacier National Park, every answer starts with a question.  

 As Barbaree Duke and Anita and Roger Palmer say in their forward to “20 Minute Lessons for Young Explorers,” “Maps and location-based experiences ground students in their spatial surroundings…Connected students see purpose [.]” 


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