Mar 312011

Every summer, I perform a self-imposed curriculum review of the five GIS courses I teach each year.  I think about the topics included and their sequence, and which course they belong in.  I make notes to myself throughout the year about what topics need work, what examples worked well or fell flat, or what new ideas I want to try out.  Some of these notes are made on hidden slides right in the PowerPoint file (e.g., Edit: break the following slide into three separate slides with a map example for each) and some in a Word file with headings for each course as well as for things like PowerPoint design, workflow, and administration.

Four of the courses I teach are in a sequence: introduction, intermediate, advanced, and a capstone project course (the fifth is an introductory GIS course at the graduate level).  I start out with about 160 students in the first course, and then lose about half with each subsequent course, ending up with about 20 in the capstone course.  The tricky part is trying to decide what students should learn if they are going to take only one GIS course vs. those who take two, or three, or four.  I wish it were as easy as consulting the GIS & T Body of Knowledge and/or the Geospatial Technology Competency Model and following a template, but it’s not that simple.

It seems as though I have three sets of students: those who just want one GIS course, often to satisfy a degree requirement for a “methods” course; those who take two courses, because they have heard that GIS is a marketable skill and hope that two will be “enough” to help them get a job; and those who take three or four, and see GIS as something that has the potential to become a substantial part of their careers (I realize these are generalizations, but I have a hunch they are roughly accurate, although it makes me think I should really conduct a survey).

What are the objectives for an introductory GIS course? When I first started teaching, a colleague of mine told me “just give them enough to make them dangerous”.  I know he was trying to be funny, but I actually took it as a warning and a challenge.  The last thing I wanted was for students, for which this would be their only GIS course, to finish the course  thinking they had a certain mastery of GIS when, as the joke implied, they would be unwittingly making all sorts of egregious errors and assumptions, churning out spurious results and coming to erroneous conclusions, all thanks to me!

If my introductory course really is the only GIS course half of the students will take, then I want to make sure that they are able to: find data sets and judge whether they are appropriate (by knowing about and critically appraising the metadata); choose an appropriate map projection; edit attribute tables and do field calculations; perform spatial and attribute queries; apply spatial problem-solving skills to formulate and execute basic analysis using distance and overlay; and then create a well-designed map that incorporates basic cartographic principles to clearly communicate the information and message they want to convey.  I am trying to be realistic about how much I can fit into a 12 week term and what a student should be able to accomplish once they have completed the course.  All along the way, I try to emphasize the why as much as the how, so that students can make informed decisions at each stage of a project instead of relying on simply remembering a sequence of procedures.  The challenge is to balance the development of functional skills with the creation of a strong theoretical foundation, so that students are well prepared both technically and conceptually.

The topics in the intermediate and advanced courses are not as tightly connected to each other.  For half of the students in the intermediate course, that will be their last GIS course, so I make sure to cover other popular and/or practical skills and topics they might need such as digitizing, geocoding, basic remote sensing concepts, raster analysis, and geoprocessing using ModelBuilder.  My advanced course includes topics such as GPS, terrain analysis, surface interpolation, and GIS design and implementation.

My annual curriculum review is something that I look forward to.  It gives me the opportunity to shake off the day-to-day concerns that often preoccupy me during the school year and take a fresh look at what I can improve for the next time around.  As always, I would love to hear your thoughts – what guides your choice of topics for a given course?


Feb 112011

I thought I would follow up yesterday’s post on ESRI technical certification and my GIS curriculum with a discussion of the UCGIS Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge project.  I don’t think that ESRI is in any way intending their certification program to be a model curriculum for the entire field of GIS, but it got me thinking about how their requirements fit in with the UCGIS Body of Knowledge (BoK).

First, a little about model GIS curricula.  When I first started teaching GIS full-time back in 2001, I was so happy when I discovered the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) core curriculum in GIScience – first the 1990 version (still faithfully hosted by Brian Klinkenberg at UBC), and then the revised version.  I was in the process of developing my teaching material for several courses, and really wanted to model my own curriculum after something authoritative, and what better than the NCGIA?  Their core curriculum included actual lecture notes and figures (although the figures were sometimes omitted or hard to find).  The list of contributing authors was impressive, and included some big names in the field: Mike Goodchild, Peter Dana, Albert Yeung, Jacek Malczewski, Kenneth Foote, David Unwin, and many others.  I adapted some of this material for my own lectures but quickly realized I would have to refer to a wide variety of other sources in order to make sure I really knew what I was talking about, and had found the best way to explain a particular topic.  Nonetheless, it was a great source for thinking about the organization of topics, as well as a great reference.  Unfortunately, the last update to the core curriculum was August 13, 2000.

I’m not familiar with all the details, but my understanding is the core curriculum project was handed over to the UCGIS who agreed to carry it forward.  The list of the UCGIS editors, contributors, and board members is truly impressive.  They started on it in 1998 and the first version of the Body of Knowledge was published in 2006.  I had been monitoring their progress before it was published, read the “straw man” version, and ordered a copy of the BoK as soon as it was finally published.  I have to say that my initial reaction was one of disappointment.  What was included was great – there was a well thought out list of topics and goals.  What was missing was the actual substantial content I thought would be included, as was done with the NCGIA core curriculum.  I realize that getting as far as they did was a huge feat, and I in no way want to detract from their accomplishment, but I had envisioned something more like the book Geographical Information Systems: Principles and Applications (known as the Big Book of GIS) by Maguire, Goodchild and Rhind, 1991, (which weighed in at over 1000 pages).  However, I certainly still refer to the current BoK and look forward to the planned second edition.

This all brings me to what I wonder is the bigger question: is it even feasible to try and have a core curriculum?  Has the field of GIS become so wide and varied, and does it change so quickly, that any attempt to capture it all in one curriculum is becoming unrealistic?  It took 8 years to publish the first UCGIS Book of Knowledge – how much had changed during that time, and is this a constantly moving target?  Or is there still indeed a “core” set of concepts that define the discipline?  I would love to hear your thoughts, and will likely write more on this topic in the future.

Ann Johnson provides an excellent summary of the various core curriculum projects here: