Saturday, January 07, 2006

Teaching an Intro to GIS Course: Focus on the Data

I want to take this moment to flesh out some ideas about how I feel an introduction to GIS course should be approached (by the teacher).

As I mentioned earlier I am teaching two courses this Spring semester. I am teaching (1) Understanding Geographic Information Systems (see syllabus), the first course in the Earth & Environmental Sciences SIS certification program, and (2) Advanced Real Estate Market Analysis, a graduate course that simultaneously introduces students to both the principles of market analysis research and GIS.

I have taught 3 graduate GIS-focused courses in the past and co-taught 1 more, so I am not coming at this with years of experience.

Nonetheless I have come to the conclusion that the crux of any intro to GIS course should be a heavy focus on the datasets and sources of data. This should include:
  • finding/obtaining data

  • evaluating data

  • bringing together various datasets that perhaps were never originally intended to play nice
From what I have seen, these skills are not taught emphasized during the intro to GIS courses. Here are four reasons why I am making this the focus of the Introduction to GIS course this semester:
  • This will provide students with the greatest flexibility to apply the GIS concepts that they learn in this course (and future GIS courses) in other subject areas. At this university, GIS is really taking off and students from various departments (see here) are flooding to all available GIS classes.

  • I think in a very linear fashion, A-then-B-then-C-then-D-then... When I first learned GIS, I was relentlessly frustrated about not knowing where to get my hands on my own GIS data to duplicate the exercises in the textbook.

  • It is empowering for students to confidently complete a GIS exercise entirely from scratch.

  • Hey, I am a librarian, so I would naturally emphasize the data sources, right?
Here is the syllabus for the Understanding GIS course this semester. 50% of the grade is made up of one project where students need to collect 16 different data sources, project the datasets, clip/extract/join/intersect, and everything else to prepare for a GIS analysis. The analysis? Well, that is where the intermediate & advanced GIS courses come in... I'll blog about this in May and then we'll see how well this strategy goes.

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