Group learning in a GIS capstone course

One of the courses I’m teaching this term is a senior GIS capstone course, with the simple title GIS Research Project.  Students in this course are wonderful to work with.  They have all taken at least three prior GIS courses, and often cartography and remote sensing courses as well.  Of the approximately 160 students that take my introductory GIS course, roughly 10 percent find their way to this final course.  At the start of this capstone course, I explain that there are only a few lectures, and that none of those will be like my “traditional” lectures in prior courses, where I would be teaching them new GIS concepts or techniques.  Instead, the idea is for them to apply what they have already learned to a project of their choosing in a seminar-style class.  That’s not to say that they are not still learning more about GIS – on the contrary, they learn quite a lot, but they learn most of it from each other.  Many of the things that I emphasize are lower in the Geospatial Technology Competency Model, under workplace and personal effectiveness competencies: creative thinking (research design); planning and organizing (project management); problem solving and decision making; communication, listening, and speaking; critical and analytical thinking; integrity; professionalism; initiative; dependability and reliability; and teamwork.

For many students this is their first time working in a group.  At the start of the course, many of them are anxious about this aspect of the course.  They worry that not all members will pull their weight, or worse, that these other students will drag down their grade.  I tell them that I reserve the right to adjust anyone’s final mark up or down based on performance, which tends to allay their fears.  During yesterday’s class, as I often do, I went around to each group and asked them how things were going, and if they had any questions.  After that, I let them work on their own for the remainder of the class, just checked in with them now and then.  As I was watching them work, I noticed that they were engaging in detailed, nuanced conversations about data sets, models, map design, etc., but what was great to see was that they were also laughing and actually have fun.

I have been hearing more and more lately about the advantages of students working in groups, and plan to try this in other courses.  For example, one suggestion I heard was to let students work in pairs on a GIS assignment, say, in an introductory GIS course.  The idea is that one student is the navigator, reading through and interpreting the assignment, and one is the driver, actually operating the computer.  This allows each of them to act as observer and coach for the other, which makes for a deeper and more enjoyable learning experience.

But back to my capstone course – the students work in our Collaboratory, which has several peninsula tables, with a computer outfitted with a large monitor, so that they can all see what is displayed.  The monitors are on swing-arms that allow students to adjust them as needed.  Students will also often bring their own laptops, which are connected to a wireless network, so that they can look up information, write sections of their report, or run parts of their model, while they all refer to the main screen as well.  This is my second year teaching in the collaboratory.  Previously, we had our classes in a traditional classroom, without wireless access.  This was far from ideal, as I would go around each week to get status reports on their projects, and they had no easy way to show me what they were working on.  Beyond that, they would all be itching to leave class as soon as possible, so they could get to the computer lab to continue their work.  Now, they arrive early and often stay late, as they have a much more conducive work environment.  I really enjoy teaching this course, and look forward to watching students continue to develop their interpersonal and analytical skills, while also having fun in the process.

Photos courtesy of Andrew Malcolm and the Department of Geography and Program in Planning, University of Toronto

2 thoughts on “Group learning in a GIS capstone course”

  1. In the years that I was teaching GIS I found that the student often formed and worked together in informal groups that came together to help each other with their class assignments. The one place where I had a formal group structure for a class was in my GIS design course (an advanced level course) where we looked at the problem of creating an overall design and suggested implementation for a GIS application. The lecture part of the course focused upon general system design principles and the application of software engineering concepts to the design activity. The topic of system design is not addressed in many GIS programs and I feel that this generates a major gap in the education of the students – especially those who going into GIS positions in the public and private sectors.

    A major part of the course was an analysis, by the students working in groups, of a real world situation where the application of GIS technology appeared to have the potential to significantly impact the existing situation. The venue for the work of the class was something that I arranged before the start of the term. Each year was a different case and the student groups came together at the end to produce as comprehensive a report as time permitted (I am not fond of the quarter system calendar). One year we worked with a large arboretum who ended up hiring one of the students to implement a GIS for them. Another interesting case involved working with our university admissions group on the efficient and effective recruitment of Freshman students. The university (Ohio State) was very pleased with the results and went on to incorporate the class findings in their admission activities. One student expanded on the problem and did a very good MA thesis while another ended up being hired by Admissions.

    1. Thanks for the comments Duane. I teach a section in my Advanced GIS course on system design and implementation, although it is more from the management perspective. I think it’s great that you gave them the opportunity to apply what they had learned to a “real world” organization. I do the same in my capstone course, although the projects are geared more towards applications of GIS. I used to spend quite a bit of time lining up projects with external “clients” for students. However, I have always given students the chance to choose their own projects, and it often turned out that none of the student groups would want to work with the clients I had arranged (which was surprising, considering some of clients were well-known organizations that I thought students would love to work with). In another, similar course I used to teach at the graduate level, students were not given a choice, but I have always felt that, if students are allowed to choose their own topic, that they will be more motivated and then perform at a higher level. Students sometimes will still take on projects with external clients, but it is more by serendipity than design now. -Don

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