Tag Archives: geodesign education

An Unlikely Collaboration: Creating a Cross-disciplinary Undergraduate Course in Geodesign

Perhaps confirming that Geodesign holds far-reaching, interdisciplinary potential, Our Geographic Science & Community Planning faculty are now collaborating on an experimental undergraduate course with some unlikely colleagues – in this case representing the Visual Communication program within the NAU School of Communication. Following several months of initial collaborations, our two faculty teams are now in “test flight” mode with two spring, 2014 courses: VC 370 (Geodesign) and GSP 375W (Community & Global Analysis). Current enrollment for these courses is 12 and 22 respectively. Both are integrating Geodesign concepts and introductory elements of the Steinitz Framework for the first time. A local festival here in Flagstaff, Arizona is providing a central, organizing theme for both courses: namely, Dew Downtown Flagstaff, the third annual iteration of this snow-themed event. The event is replete with research topics to explore, followed by various redesign opportunities later in the semester. Because of the event’s numerous local, regional and global characteristics (corporate sponsors, traffic and transportation logistics, political economy of downtown redevelopment and promotion of the Arizona Snowbowl, to name just a few), we believe that an intentional Geodesign approach can provide students with an opportunity for cross-disciplinary collaboration and team-based problem solving.

Our GSP and VC faculty meet in our Geodesign Studio to finalize course goals and logistics. Most of this gang will attend the Summit in January.

Our GSP and VC faculty meet in our Geodesign Studio to finalize course goals and logistics. Most of this gang will attend the Summit in January.

In short, both courses are taught separately with no cross-listing or co-convening for spring, 2014. Our goal is to begin with some manageable approaches for “mixing” the classes, in the form of at least three scheduled “Design” days later in the semester when integrated teams of students will meet within our respective studio classrooms. We are looking for some small successes rather than complex curricular overhauls within both programs. Our COM friends are using an existing topics-based course (VC 370) to test the Geodesign theme, while my GSP colleagues decided to integrate Geodesign and this collaborative venture into our existing, required, junior-level writing courses (GSP 375W). Perhaps illustrating the need to start small with such a cross-unit attempt, just the process of determining three mutually agreeable days for students and faculty to come together has been a challenge in itself, if always friendly.

For a better sense of how Geodesign is integrated into these courses, both sets of course learning outcomes/objectives are listed below:

GSP 375W Community & Global Analysis:

Following the completion of the course, students should be able to:

  • Synthesize various local and external (global) factors that contribute to the complexity of community and environmental issues and problems in particular places.
  • Critically evaluate different sources of information for their level of objectivity or subjectivity, and identify the particular interests, biases and cultural contexts that contribute to those perspectives.
  • Explain the interrelationships of physical and human geography that contribute to the causes and implications of local, community, and environmental issues.
  • Apply a social science or natural/physical science approach to investigate specific place-based, local or regional issues through a variety of primary and secondary research methods.
  • Communicate research project results and recommendations within professionally-written reports geared to specific audiences.
  • Apply problem-solving skills within a geodesign framework to positively influence environmental and social change.

VC 370 Geodesign

At the conclusion of the course, the student should be able to:

  • Apply the principles of visual communication to each problem.
  • Develop research skills as they pertain to wayfinding and environmental graphics.
  • Explore strategic symbology relating to universal design (ADA Accessible signage.
  • Increase awareness of other professionals and their role in Geodesign
  • Learn to collaborate in a group environment

Our Collaborative Process: The Longer Story (If you Dare)

Last summer I was contacted by faculty members from our NAU School of Communication, having learned of our new Geodesign Studio. Focused on their Visual Communication (VC) program, our new friends were curious to see if we could provide introductory instruction for their own students who were not yet savvy with spatial scale, wayfinding, and otherwise spatial thinking. Mark Manone and I exchanged visits with them, first within our studio, later returning the favor with a visit to their facilities. These initial exchanges led to a more ambitious idea for integrating two of our respective courses, with the central aim of encouraging students to discuss and solve problems with others outside their own disciplines.

It turns out that the VC folks were impressively ahead of us in planning to integrate Geodesign, while we floundered in GSP for some time during fall, 2013. While also moving through our 7-year Program Review, the potential challenges began to pile up: Would we create a temporary “399” course and heavily promote to attract students? We could use our Geospatial Science capstone course and provide a geodesign option for seniors. This option rose to the top of our list for some time. Our friends were already setting up a separate VC course and developing a geodesign title and description. Given their enrollment numbers, they saw no problem with attracting 10-20 students to this specialty offering. And, would we attempt such a collaboration for spring, 2014 or should we wait and plan more carefully for next fall? The fundamental challenge persisted: How to integrate a basic geodesign approach for our own majors, where to do so within the curriculum, how to attract enough students outside of their rather structured degree progression, and how to create a mutual schedule with VC to bring our students together? Let alone answering pedagogical questions about what should be designed, how it should be accomplished, and for whom.

The answer appeared magically one afternoon, in the form of an “ah-ha” moment. Let’s see if we can adapt our required GSP 375W course to integrate Geodesign components and learning outcomes. The course is currently titled Community and Global Analysis, with its primary focus on the junior-level writing requirement and undergraduate research and reporting approaches. It is required for all GSP majors, regardless of their emphasis in community planning or geospatial sciences. It comes logically (for most students) after our GSP 303 Community and Urban Design course, where they team up to analyze and redesign an auto-centric land parcel using SketchUp. With this solution we would have a captive audience, with no special recruiting necessary. I personally taught this course for two years, but now as Department Chair I was letting it go to our new geospatial science faculty member, Amanda Stan.

I met with Mark Manone and Dawn Hawley to “test drive” the idea and see if I was missing anything important that would counter the supposed list of benefits. They saw none. I then went to Amanda herself, to inquire if this would be something of interest. I wanted to assure our newest faculty member that she would have full mentoring support from me and other colleagues should she agree to dabble in Geodesign. This would be her first time teaching this course, and so we might as well team up and redesign it now.

Our next stop was a full GSP faculty meeting to weigh the pros and cons of the idea (early December). Ultimately the concept of redesigning GSP 375W passed muster, and we ended up with a 5-member mentoring team to support and guide Amanda with the revisions. The faculty decided not to submit a hurried proposal to the NAU Curriculum Committee for a course name change, but would consider one for next year. (A hypothetical cartoon came to my mind, with a wide-eyed Amanda driving a car with five “back seat” colleagues ordering commands from behind her… No, we would try to avoid the “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem, hopefully with some success.)

Our most recent meeting was with our full course redesign team and our two VC colleagues, in early January, 2014 (pictured above). This was messy, though I supplied some initial goals to assist our work. After two hours with studio white-board lists and designs of our own, we collectively agreed to a course topic and theme for student exploration. Both courses would center on research and field opportunities provided by our local San Francisco Peaks, the Snowbowl ski resort and snowmaking issues, and most specifically, the third annual Dew Downtown Festival on Feb 8-9. We would organize the course around the Dew, and encourage student working groups to conduct research on various aspects of the event. The topic would be highly popular with students in both courses as well, given their typical interest in the outdoors.

After the separate courses progressed on their own with a common Geodesign reading list, we would bring the VC and GSP students together at least three times, scheduled for Friday mornings in one of our studio rooms. Students would be required to present their respective findings from their research (or for VC, their visual design projects). The third segment of the course would involve an actual redesign (or Geodesign) project with the combined students (several teams) working to improve or solve various spatial and/or organizational issues they identified during the festival.

Six of us from VC and GSP will travel to the Geodesign Summit in January, 2014 to learn more about integrating Geodesign into our respective curricula, and to catch up on the latest technologies and approaches of this emerging field. Our time together will also provide for opportunistic discussions to flush out the “design” component of this collaborative Geodesign course attempt. We will look forward to providing a report on how it all went by May, 2014. See you on the flip side.

The GeoDesign Industry Needs Your Students

by Doug Walker – June 27, 2011

(Doug Walker is president and principal of Placeways LLC)

“Oh good, the college students are here.”  My colleague Amy whispered it to me as we walked into the room, and I smiled.  Things were going well already.

We were in Galveston, Texas at the Texas A&M University campus, arriving to help set up for a public planning workshop the next day.  Our firm, Placeways, sells and uses geodesign software for land use planning projects all over the world, and we were there as consultants.  Our hosts were Prof. John Jacob and Steve Mikulencak of Texas A&M University’s Texas AgriLife Extension and the Texas Coastal Watershed Program.  This was their project:  an extension initiative focused on, in their words, “enabling coastal communities in Texas to improve quality of life in cities and towns while preserving and enhancing the natural coastal environment.”  Not only had they lined up some graduate students to help, they had come up with a great project name:  Coastal CHARM (Community Health and Resource Management) https://sites.google.com/site/galvestonbayresilience/home .

The workshop was designed to engage local stakeholders (municipal planners, resource managers, community leaders) more deeply in the regional planning process for the Houston-Galveston area.  It was part education, part participatory planning.  On the one hand, we wanted to teach participants about pertinent topics like jobs and housing, climate change, hurricane risk, and water quality.  On the other hand, we wanted to gain insights, opinions and local knowledge from them, who as local residents had unmatchable knowledge of life in their community.

Enter geodesign.  The centerpiece of the workshop was a hands-on tabletop sketching exercise using CommunityViz http://placeways.com/communityviz/index.php , the ArcGIS http://www.esri.com/software/arcgis/index.html  extension for planning and geodesign that our company makes.  The interface was projected on a low-cost “light table” set up using SmoothBoard software and Nintendo Wii remotes. Participants broke into small groups and gathered around tables displaying a live map of the region.  Using marker-like infrared pens as cursors, they pointed, clicked, and drew on the map to sketch growth plans for the next 35 years:  high-density housing here; a new job center there; preserve this as open space; etc.  As they sketched, charts and graphs tracked the likely implications of their plans on all those pertinent topics like hurricane risk and water quality.  I wrote more about it on another blog, which you can read here http://www.orton.org/blog/tabletop_planning_with_community_viz . It was fun, it was educational, and everyone—including the organizers—learned something about how the region works and what the future may hold.

The CHARM system is one of the niftier examples of tabletop sketching I’ve seen lately, but it is not the only one and the practice is growing and improving fast.  We had the chance to support a similar project on Cape Cod, for example, under the auspices of the FHWA, EPA, and a number of other federal agencies working with the Volpe Center http://www.volpe.dot.gov/publiclands/projects/capecod5_interag.html .  Another example, which appeared recently in ArcNews, is from the Netherlands, where Gustavo Arciniegas of the Institute for Environmental Studies at VU University in Amsterdam uses similar approaches http://placeways.com/communityviz/gallery/casestudies/pdf/Bodegraven.pdf .

So why did the presence of university students at the set-up session make Amy and me smile?  Setting aside the happy certainty that someone would be around to eat any leftover food, there were about four good reasons:

  1. Most prosaically, we knew the technology would be in good hands.  ArcGIS, CommunityViz, the light table setup—none of them is especially hard to use once it’s loaded and ready to go, but it’s a pretty tall stack of technology and that means there’s a lot to keep track of.  We could assign one student to provide technical support to each table and be confident they would be comfortable, savvy, unflustered should anything go slightly awry. Everyone else at the table could stop worrying about the computers and start focusing on the planning tasks at hand. This is a specific lesson for this particular kind of workshop, but it is also a more general lesson about a valuable role students can play in almost any kind of academic service or extension program that is using newer technology like geodesign that may be intimidating to the general public.
  2. The workshop would have better age diversity.  The average age at most public meetings we attend is well over 50 years.  Citizens over 50 seem to have more time or inclination to participate in activities like community planning, but they represent less than a third of population.  Even in professional meetings like the CHARM workshop, most attendees are well beyond their college years.  Students in their twenties bring a fresh and important perspective to the discussion, so we’re always glad to see them, even if it’s a homework assignment that forced them to show. 
  3. The students would be learning how this stuff works.  As practitioners who promote innovation, we at Placeways have a vested interest in the next generation.  We want them to know about our latest technology and—as importantly—how it applies in the real world.  After graduation, they’ll take that knowledge and those new methods with them into their jobs and practice, eventually making approaches like geodesign a standard part of how planning is done.  Here’s a corollary, which I guess I’ll call Reason 3a:
    1.  As an employer of geography and planning graduates, I can tell you that even a perfect classroom record won’t guarantee a new graduate a job interview unless there is some real-world experience to go with it.  Geodesign is not just a technical exercise.  It’s about making GIS, models, data, and science available to ordinary people in a way they can actually use.  A student who hasn’t worked with that part of it hasn’t really learned geodesign.
    2. We knew we would learn from the students.  We work with students in contexts like this, and we also see them in CommunityViz classes or workshops we sometimes teach at high school, college, graduate, or continuing education levels.  Well-taught students ask questions and have suggestions of their own.  They draw ideas from their own life experience—social networking and video gaming, for example—as well as the breadth of their coursework.  Speaking at least for ourselves at Placeways, but also I suspect for other vendors and practitioners around the industry, these student perspectives are a valuable source of innovative thinking.

Geodesign is still emerging as a field and as a practice.  At Placeways we’re in the middle of it, so it’s a good bet I don’t have perfect perspective.  But from here on the front, I see it bursting out all over.  Geodesign today is where GIS was 20 years ago—finally reaching a stage where the technology is powerful enough to be easy to use, arriving just in time for an audience that is hungry for better ways to connect what we as communities know with what we as a communities decide to do.  The education of today’s students—our society’s next generation of geographers, planners and designers—will be incomplete without geodesign technology, geodesign processes, and geodesign philosophy. 

Plus, Amy and I might be doing a workshop near you, and we’re kind of looking for some college student volunteers…?

(Post submitted by Doug Walker, June 27, 2011. Posted by Tom Paradis)

Computer-enabled Tabletop Sketch Planning: Implications for Higher Ed?

In a recent blog article for the Orton Family Foundation by the President of Placeways LLC, Doug Walker makes an intriguing case for the rise of tabletop planning. In this case, he provides an overview of how we can now integrate public participation (such as charrettes) with a combination of tools including ArcGIS and CommunityViz. This gives rise to the question of how various undergraduate and/or graudate programs are beginning to implement, or might implement, this geodesign-oriented approach into our curricula. Are there any academic programs that have effectively integrated all of the “pieces” of tabletop planning mentioned by Doug Walker? This could signal a potential direction for geodesign education, housed in a variety of disciplines. Thoughts and experiences?

- Tom Paradis