Talking Shop with New England's GIS Educators

October 2, 2013

Sharing is Caring

The New England Arc User Group’s (NEARC) GIS Educator’s Day is held the Sunday before the main conference. It’s become a tradition for the region’s K-12 and university educators, instructional designers, technology assistants and librarians involved in GIS to come together and talk shop. The value of that need to talk shop was regularly highlighted during the 2013 meeting by sessions that ran over (the schedule is built to accommodate that) and nearly every attendee I spoke to commenting, “I’d like to be at this session and two others right now!”

So, what did we talk about?


The statistical language/environment R (Wikipedia) connects to ArcGIS. And, that’s led to an interesting phenomenon: Some GIS users are learning about R coming from ArcGIS. Some R users are learning the value of GIS because of its link to ArcGIS.


The idea of offering a credential for a specific skill is not new, but its use in GIS is just beginning. American Sentinel University is exploring the idea (Directions Magazine coverage) and Alex Chaucer at Skidmore College is already running some pilot programs. One pilot program uses badges to help motivate student workers in GIS to learn the basics. A second revolves around Esri Story Maps. The idea is that anyone who successfully builds one (based on a detailed tutorial) would get a badge. The brilliance here is that the badge could ideally be earned in any course across the curriculum where the instructor chooses to use a story map. This will hopefully motivate both instructors and students to explore GIS. These pilots are truly testing the waters; the value of a badge or collection of badges beyond campus is still unclear.

Tapping Students to Build GIS Tutorials

Carol Cady at St. Lawrence University had a sharp student, Jon Ignatowski, who used his final GIS project to find the best place for him to live after graduation. He used all sorts of vector data and buffers and the like. But Cady wanted her students to gain more fluency with raster data, something she feels can seem intimidating. She leveraged Ignatowski’s idea and had him write the new project that students now complete. They use five raster layers and their own criteria to find their own “best place.”

Among Cady’s observations from implementing the new project:

  • She used no handouts or cookbook instructions and thus students really had a clue about what they were doing (she’s considering doing more projects without cookbooks).
  • Students had fun.
  • Students were comfortable, not afraid of raster and far more of them used raster in final projects than in past classes.
  • Seniors found the authentic project motivating (which is tough that last semester...).

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)

Turnout at my session on the state of GIS and geography MOOCs (resources) was quite good. About 75% of attendees felt comfortable with what a MOOC was and perhaps 25% had taken a MOOC, including several alumni of Maps and the Geospatial Revolution. That meant I spoke very little and let the attendees answer each other’s questions. There were two ideas that were new to me from our discussions:

Discussion threads can be overwhelming and annoying - Several people noted that having grades based on contributing a certain number of times per week to online discussions was not as valuable as it might sound. Further, the sheer volume of discussion content meant some kind of curation was needed to find the “valuable” and “interesting” threads. Neither of the MOOCs I’ve taken required participation in the discussions; perhaps that made them less annoying and more valuable?

MOOCs can be about creating community - Two educators noted how their organizations were considering MOOCs for alumni or families of existing students to create community. I spoke with a geospatial extension staffer (we had more than one in attendance!) who found that idea intriguing, to target his audience.

Story Maps and ArcGIS Online

These two topics came up quite a bit. Story Maps are becoming a de facto presentation tool for student project outcomes. Esri staffers just visited Philadelphia University to guide geodesign students in their use. Kathryn Keranan of James Madison’s Geospatial Semester (college credit for high school study of GIS) showed student-created ArcGIS Online maps created by collecting data via cell phones. “How do you do that?” was answered with “Come to a session on editable feature services later today!”

I spent an hour to build my first story map in a hands-on “bring your own device” workshop. As slick as the templates are (we used the tour one), the process still has quite a few steps: load geocoded images into an online service (we used Picassa), make those sharable, start a new map in ArcGIS Online, name it, make it public, make an app out of it, make that public, then use the template to load in the pictures from the service. While everyone did successfully make a story map (with their own or the leader’s [Ina Ahern of Plymouth High School] images), the 20 of us found nearly everything that could go wrong along the way. A few observations:

  • Any browser but Internet Explorer works well.
  • It was cool to have a teacher teach this rather than an Esri staffer (not that they don’t do a fine job...).
  • I chose not to get a Picassa account and instead inserted the URLs of my images and geotagged them manually within the story map template. I used Google to get the correct lat/lon to paste in since my OpenStreetMap basemap could not find the fairgrounds in Augusta, NJ.
  • You can now link to videos and include logos in the Esri hosted public accounts.
  • Story maps (and ArcGIS Online) are a moving target and it’s hard to keep up with enhancements!

What’s Old is New Again

I could not stay away from a session on old stone walls in New Hampshire by Robert Woolner, a 7th grade “geography!” teacher at Hopkinton (NH) Middle High School, and Brian Burford, the New Hampshire state archivist. It turns out maps were made in the 1920s up until the 1970s to help in fighting Blister Rust, which was killing a key tree crop, white pine (sample). Those maps showed roads and stone walls. Burford showed us actual hand-drawn maps (cool!) and described how just regular people, most with an interest in forestry or surveying, drew the maps by hand. Woolner explained how he scanned the maps and pulled them into ArcGIS to compare with modern town boundaries. The students learned about the walls from an actual stone mason and took field trips to find and explore the stone walls in Contoocook, NH.

The Future

Keith Ratner, who leads the GIS program at Salem (MA) State University, and his colleagues are remapping what should be in the school’s successful GIS master’s degree. Attendees offered up our ideas and Ratner shared what he learned digging into the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM), AAG research and what existing programs teach.

Lightning Talks as Introductions

The organizing committee tried something new this year. Before the morning and afternoon sessions, presenters during those slots were asked to give a two-minute introduction to their topic and suggest why someone might come. While it took some time out of the day, I found it helpful to get a sense of what might be going on in the sessions I could not attend, and it introduced me to people I wanted to at least meet during the day. This sort of introduction many not be realistic for larger events, but it worked great for our four by four parallel session schedule.

A Final Plea

If you are a K-16 educator in GIS in New England or know any, please urge them to join us next year. The fee is low, the group warm and welcoming, and I feel sure anyone attending will learn something valuable. I have taken away a great deal each year I’ve attended. Further, if attendees stay until the end, they are rewarded with some great GIS books courtesy of Esri.


Sharing is Caring

Explore more: Education

Geospatial Newsletters

Keep up to date with the latest geospatial trends!

Sign up

Search DM

Get Directions Magazine delivered to you
Please enter a valid email address
Please let us know that you're not a robot by using reCAPTCHA.
Sorry, there was a problem submitting your sign up request. Please try again or email

Thank You! We'll email you to verify your address.

In order to complete the subscription process, simply check your inbox and click on the link in the email we have just sent you. If it is not there, please check your junk mail folder.

Thank you!

It looks like you're already subscribed.

If you still experience difficulties subscribing to our newsletters, please contact us at