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.

Call for Papers: Special Issue on Geodesign

A special issue of Landscape and Urban Planning (LAND) will focus on Geodesign: Changing the World, Changing Design. Guest editors are Frederick R. Steiner and Allan W. Shearer, School of Architecture, The University of Texas at Austin. For those who have not seen the Call by email, we are pasting the text here, originally provided by Frederick Steiner:

The purpose of the special issue of Landscape and Urban Planning (LAND) is to provide a basis for common understanding of what Geodesign is by asking what Geodesign does. We seek papers that examine how questions of environmental change have been posed in Geodesign and that demonstrate how the answers allow for, or demand, new models of design practice and education.

We welcome such investigations in the forms of review articles, research articles, case studies, and discussions about research needs and pedagogy. We anticipate submissions that draw upon the disciplines of geography, computer science, and the environmental sciences, as well as landscape architecture, community and regional planning, and architecture.

Abstract and manuscript submission

An abstract of 800 words or less, specifying title, author(s), affiliation and e-mail address, should be sent to Dr. Allan W. Shearer ( by 15 February 2014. Abstracts will be shortlisted by the editorial panel against the criteria of originality, methodological quality, and relevance. Authors of abstracts demonstrating clear scholarly merits will be invited to submit a full manuscript.

Invited manuscripts should be between 4,000–8,000 words and submitted through the LAND website by 15 June 2014. All papers submitted for this Special Issue will undergo the usual LAND peer review process. Details on article type and format are available from the LAND journal website at:


Journal of Urbanism Article on NAU Geodesign Curriculum Efforts

As a shamless plug, we are pleased to inform those interested that our article in the Journal of Urbanism has been published online this summer, titled Geodesign Meets Curriculum Design: Integrating Geodesign Approaches into Undergraduate Programs. The publisher, Taylor and Francis, allows up to 50 free downloads of the article, after which the link will take you the abstract. Please feel free to be one of the first 50 by clicking above. This will certainly not be the last word in curriculum design, but some might find it useful to see the direction in which we have been moving here at NAU, and to share ideas with others.

Geodesign Student Group makes a Splash in the Cloud

Founding members of the Geodesign Student Group at NAU

Founding members of the Geodesign Student Group at NAU

Posted by Tom Paradis, NAU.

Apparently the concepts of Geodesign are gaining the attention of students as well as faculty and employers. During fall, 2012 my colleagues and I were pleased to see some of our undergraduate students in geography and planning take the initiative to found a new student organization here at NAU (with no initial prompting from us!). They settled on the professional-sounding name of Geodesign Student Group, which has already hosted several activities that include local field trips and guest visits by local and regional planners. They have also been visiting classes to secure contact information from potential new recruits. If you were at the recent Geodesign Summit in January, you may have seen some of them attending your sessions. Perhaps they can provide inspiration for other students elsewhere in the future! If you would like to see what they’ve been up to, here are some materials that they have created, including a web site, blog, Facebook page, and a feature article on the NAU homepage a few weeks ago. Our goal is to help them become sustainable so that future students will build on their excellent efforts!

GSG members took the lead on our department BBQ.

GSG members took the lead on our department BBQ.


Planning for a Geodesign Studio: Trading Spaces

by Tom Paradis, NAU Geography, Planning & Recreation

The past several months have seen some encouraging developments here at NAU, with respect to our efforts to find a space suitable for collaborative learning and student design projects. I suppose the primary lesson emerging from our experiences is the potential significance of “seed money” and leverage, whereby one small success can lead to others. The remainder of this post will provide an overview of this “snowball” effect that we have experienced in the past few months in our effort to secure a space for a new geodesign studio.

The future NAU Geodesign Studio space, Room 117 SBS West. The Call Center is preparing to move out, pictured here, of the 24 x 34-foot room.

First, however, let’s take a look at the space. Our Department of Geography, Planning and Recreation landed what I call the “Cadillac” of rooms under consideration for a new studio, either within our building or nearby. In short, the room served as the former “ATT Lab” for the former College of Business before they moved into their new facility down the road seven years ago. The room is still labeled as such on the doorways.  Then, the NAU Student Call Center moved in, from where eager student volunteers called potential alums to assist with NAU development efforts. Although our department is not seeing its own new building any time soon, we are indirectly benefitting from the campus building boom that continues at a record pace. As I write this, the Call Center is moving into its new facility on north campus, leaving us a pretty ragged, but exciting room (see photo above). The University Space Committee has since turned the room over to our department, with our planned opening date (knock on wood) of January 14, 2012, when the spring semester begins. It was a bit of a strange and satisfying feeling in August when we began to place Room 117 (the Studio) into our course scheduling matrix, which means that it is becoming the official classroom space for our GSP 405 capstone course, Senior Professional Studio. More courses and projects will be scheduled for that space in the future. Making the project more real (and not just a little intimidating for this new chair) was the fun had by colleagues yesterday while choosing a carpet design from swatches provided by NAU facilities. The room desperately needs new carpet and other upgrades, which will happen care of the dean’s generosity and support for the project.

How did we acquire the space and support for upgrades and furniture? One success has led to another, the proverbial “snowball” effect. A bit of good timing hasn’t hurt, either. Long story short, the process began last spring with the submission of a written proposal to the NAU Parent Leadership Council, which provides mini-grants for curricular projects that will benefit the students beyond what is normally supported by academic units. I called our dean (since departed from NAU) and secured his verbal support for submitting the proposal for some new computer equipment, for a then-imaginary studio room. He told me that, if we secured the grant, he would help us find some space. 

Upon news of our success with obtaining the grant, it was time for the dean to make good on the promise. Let’s just say that it was not an easy process, and I sympathized with the dean who was already desperately looking for space for many other college needs. Having all but given up on options within our own building, he opened the door by suggesting a trade. Something akin to “Trading Spaces,” our department collaborated on a proposal to consolidate some office spaces that could be traded back to the college for use as new faculty offices. That second proposal, along with unanimous faculty support and some plans for room juggling, landed us the studio space by early summer.

Since that time, a lot of exciting planning and design work has ensued, providing fodder for future posts here. The latest success has been our Provost’s granting of funds to furnish the studio, the final piece of the equation for now. If we can get the carpet and walls renovated over the holidays as planned, we may just have students in there on January 14!

(Future posts will provide more information on the planning for the studio’s interior design, our valuable partnership with folks around campus to assist with inclusive and universal design strategies, and plans on how to manage the studio for classes and other projects. If you would like to share information about your own studio experiences that may apply to geodesign, please send them our way!)

Tom Paradis, John Baskett, and Mark Manone (left to right) present the studio progress at the annual Parent Leadership Council reception in September. John is a founding member of the Geodesign Student Group at NAU.

Creative Resilience: The Next Sustainability for Tourism?

by Alan A. Lew – this is a brief summary of a paper that I am working on – originally posted on my TG Tourism Place blog.
‘Sustainable development’ has really only been around as a popular conceptual framework since the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) issued its report to the United Nations in 1987 (Hall & Lew, 2009).  Also known as the Brundtland Report, its goal was to define a global agenda to deal with the deterioration of natural and social environments.
Today, 24 years later, sustainable development and sustainable tourism are widely accepted as appropriate philosophies upon which to base policy decisions and behavioral practice. Their wide acceptance is due, in part, to the flexibility used to interpret their meaning.  Unfortunately, that flexibility may have made both sustainable development and sustainable tourism meaningless.
Evidence for the failure of sustainable development is seen in many of the major news headlines of the past couple of years, including:
  1. Increasingly extreme climate events related to increasing atmospheric green house gasses (GHG).
  2. Increasing global population (reaching seven billion in 2011) putting more pressure on natural resources.
  3. Increasing extreme geologic events (earthquakes and tsunamis), in part due to growing populations in dangerous locations.
  4. Economic recession and financial crises, especially in the US, the Eurozone and Japan.
All of these changes, among others, are taking place despite widespread commitments to sustainable development across the globe.  It appears that sustainable development in general, and sustainable tourism as one of its forms, has failed to meet the demands of contemporary society, and are even being overwhelmed by them.
Resilience theory offers an alternative to the sustainable development paradigm. Community resilience is the ability of a place to maintain a normal level of service in the face of periodic or unpredictable external shocks or system failures.  One way to think of the difference is that sustainable development tries to prevent the shock event from occurring (by behaving more responsible toward the environment and society), whereas resilience planning focuses more on the response and recovering after the shock event.
From a human settlement of community perspective, three general approaches to resilience planning have been suggested (Davoudi 2012): Engineering, Ecological and Transformational.  Engineering resilience is the ability to return to a normal equilibrium after a disturbance and emphasizes the efficiency and predictability of bouncing back.
Ecological resilience is the ability to learn from an adverse event so as to be better prepared for future shocks, which may involve an alternative form of normalcy. Such learning includes institutional capacity building and understanding individual social capital opportunities and needs.  For example, the SARS epidemic decimated tourist arrivals in many Asian countries in 2003 because they were caught unprepared to address this type of catastrophe. Similar disease issues have arisen since that time, but policies and practices adopted since 2003 have successfully kept them mostly under control, protecting the tourism industry.  These practices include isolating travelers who are severely ill and regularly disinfecting elevators and other strategic locations in public places.
Engineering and ecological resilience represent the traditional goals of community resilience planning and both assume that there is a normal level of social equilibrium that can be achieved.  Most the new interest in climate change resilience has tends to focus on these traditional approaches. However, as community resilience planning has become more widely examined by social scientists and community planners, a third form of resilience has emerged.  It is define as the capacity of a community to invoke whole systems changes, reflecting different timelines and geographical scales, that evolve and create new adaptive models of response to changes in their natural and social environment (Planning Theory & Practice). I call this Creative resilience because resilient societies are those that are able to continuously re-create themselves to successfully adapt to an ever changing world.
Three basic tenets of Creative resilience are:
  1. Disturbances range from large, sudden shocks to gradual and consistent shifts, from the unpredictable to the expected, and from the undesired to those that are welcome.
  2. Communities and people build resilience by continuously responding to disturbances in creative and adaptive ways.
  3. Creative capacity building is occurs through effective leadership, individual social capital, and institutional social learning.
To me, a resilience approach makes a lot more sense in today’s world, with today’s challenges, than does a sustainability approach.  While much of sustainability also supports resiliency, resilience planning is more directly related to the immediate challenges of a community in a real and practical manner.  Creative resilience also offers a wider range of possible responses and visionary futures than does sustainability, which is more narrowly focused on conservation approaches.
For tourism, does this mean that we will replace green certifications (such as Green Globe) with resilient certifications, or at least incorporate resilience into the certification criteria?  I think that we may actually see this some day, though not in the near term as resilience is still an emerging approach.
For tourism destinations, however, the question arises as to what is the more important and effective policy for local and regional funding and political support: sustainability or resilience? Instead of sustainable tourism, should we be promoting resilient tourism? And what would resilient tourism look like?
My own fieldwork in Asia indicates that the answer to this last question is very much dependent on the context and needs of the tourism entities involved.  Figure 1 shows how four generalized types of tourism settings based on the degree of disturbance (from gradual shift to sudden shock) and the scale of tourism (from private entrepreneurs to shared public interests) that are involved.
Figure 1
2x2 chart
The Change Rate axis recognizes that people perceive and manage slow, but still significant, changes in the environment, culture and society than they do with sudden shocks to these systems.  In addition, the model recognizes that rates of change can be highly variable over time and at different social and geographic scales, which can require different modes of response.
Given the complexity of contemporary social challenges, a fully comprehensive approach to resilience planning is best approached from a creative resilience because it is the only approach that acknowledges and accepts the range of changes that a community faces. From the perspective of the tourism industry, this means:
  • 1-      All tourism destinations face a range of change pressures, including environmental (changing natural resources), social (changing cultural resources) and economic (changing economic conditions).
  • 2-      Some pressures for change are apparent and predictable, while others are opaque and unpredictable.
  • 3-      Pressures for change occur at a variety of time lines (speeds) — some are slow and gradual, while others require urgent responses.
  • 4-      Traditional sustainable tourism planning mostly addresses slow change issues. Engineering resilience planning mostly addresses major disruptions.
  • 5-      Pressures for change occur at a variety of geographic scales — some only impact an individual entrepreneur, while others impact an entire community or cultural group.
  • 6-      Lower geographic scale issues need to be incorporated into resilience planning that occurs at higher geographic scales.
  • 7-      Common change issues in tourism destinations include the modification, deterioration or complete loss of: (1) tourism facilities and services; (2) environmental and cultural tourism resources; (3) tourist markets; and (4) skilled employees
  • 8-      A slow change pressures may be transformed into a sudden shock event if it passes a tolerance threshold (or breaking point).
  • 9-      Comprehensive resilience planning should incorporate the full range of change pressures that a community faces, and encourage creative and flexible response.
  • 10-   The tourism industry needs to be included in community resilience planning.
Reference Cited
Davoudi, S. (2012) Resilience: A Bridging Concept of a Dead End? Planning Theory & Practice, Vol. 13, No. 2, 299–333, June 2012 –
Hall, C.M. and Lew, A.A. (2009). Understanding and Managing Tourism Impacts: An Integrated Approach. London: Routledge.

Designing a Geodesign Studio: A Wish List and Getting Started

Posted by Tom Paradis (with great assistance from others mentioned herein).

What exactly is a “geodesign studio”? There was informal discussion of geodesign “labs” and “active classrooms” at the 2012 GeoDesign Summit in January, only adding to my own confusion. When asked casually, certain individuals believed that an “active classroom” was the way to go. Others expressed confusion about the “lab” component of “geodesign lab” when I mentioned the idea. My clarity on the issue was not improved. (Envision this conversation from the movie, Airplane: “A lab? What is it? It’s a big classroom with computers, but that’s not important right now.”)

Still, it seemed possible that some version of a geodesign “lab” might be the next obvious step for our students and faculty – some collaborative and dedicated space where geodesign can “happen”. Lacking imagination or decent experience, I had conceptualized the “lab” as a room full of computers and a projector. Ya, we got that. But what exactly would happen with geodesign in such a place? I brought such questions to my colleagues, and we did the next logical thing: consult with Bill Miller, Director of GeoDesign Services at ESRI.

Long story short, thanks to Bill’s assistance and experience, we began to visualize a very different kind of place. Not a lab, per se, but a “studio,” similar to what might be found at many architecture schools and programs. Less computers and more supporting infrastructure. Some of the studio components could be refreshingly simple, from rolling tables and chairs to white boards and tack boards or “cork bands” to pin up posters and drawings. Fortunately, one of our urban planning faculty members, Dawn Hawley, was in sync with this concept due to past experience at other universities. The rest of us geographers and planners had to wrap our heads around it.

The Vision:

With Bill Miller’s perspectives in mind, my colleagues provided a new vision for a Geodesign Studio, a space where students could enjoy their own, dedicated space for specific design-related courses. They could store posters and projects instead of bugging faculty members to hide them in their offices (happens frequently now). The room would not be “open” publicly, but actually secured for limited entry, including lockable cabinets and lockers on the inside, and a key-pad entry on the outside. Students in specific studio/design courses, consequently, could feel comfortable with using the space without fear of materials being stolen. Posters and draft site plans could be displayed, with multiple students pouring over draft materials around a table. GIS and SketchUp projects, for instance, could be displayed electronically overhead, and tweaked on a shared computer or tablet PC, for instance. Student teams from the classes could meet here and complete their team projects, and even personalize their space a bit. A limited number of cubicles and desks would be available to allow for individual work space. This type of space made sense to us, comprising much more of a “studio” than a “lab”.

Wish List

Here is our Wish List for an eventual GeoDesign Studio, pulling all the stops (as we know them). Thanks especially to Dawn Hawley and Mark Manone for providing this summary list:

  1. Space: square footage range between typical classroom and conference room
  2. Moveable and wheel -lockable tables
  3. Industrial wire shelf units (1 per table and 2 extra for supplies)
  4. Lockable cabinets or horizontal filing cabinets for special item lockup
  5. Lamps- one per station plus 1 each at the computers
  6. Rolling tri-level wire baskets for student desks
  7. 3 computers- 2 desktop tablet computers plus extra monitors and 1 laptop touchscreen tablet pc
  8. Scanner
  9. 2 Printers (black and white and color)
  10. Large white board
  11. Cork bands high and low for posters and renderings
  12. Drafting chairs (rolling) for desks and computers
  13. Portable drawing table
  14.  4 additional chairs for others (could be scavenged)
  15. Pad key entrance lock
  16. Cart with projector that computer will hook to
  17. Space needs to be hardwired for our computer system (university and dept.) and needs good wireless access as well
  18. Tabletop planning equipment (future?)
  19. One 65-inch Sharp LCD monitor (existing inventory)
  20. RAM upgrade for 12 existing tablet PCs

Getting Started:

The timing seems to be right. Our department submitted a proposal for an internal mini-grant that has recently been accepted (Thanks to the NAU Parent Leadership Council!), which will allow for the purchase and upgrade of a few computers and initial equipment. Given this recent success, some matching equipment has been secured, and our college Dean has promised to help us find some adequate space (no easy matter, and still to be determined). It appears that with these three symbiotic components – space, small grant, and matching equipment from existing inventory – this will provide a reasonable and feasible approach to get us started!

I suppose the lesson here is that one can start small, secure some initial support and materials, and plan to build on that for the future. A Geodesign Studio need not be complicated or reserved for the most well-funded institutions. There are certain things that can be accomplished relatively quickly with limited funding. Now the work begins….

Input for us and others? How might you adjust the Wish List above? Or the vision? Your experiences with studios that might apply to geodesign goals? Feel free to comment, as we are always looking to learn and share ideas for this venture!

DLA 2012 Conference: GeoDesign, 3-D Modeling, and Visualization

This is to get the word out about an upcoming conference on GeoDesign, from May 31 – June 2, 2012 in Bernburg and Dessau, Germany. Matt Artz provides a detailed post about the event (Click here) for more information. Wow, Germany and GeoDesign in June. Very tempting! – twp

Designing a course around a “challenge”: A problem-based approach.

The case of GSP 375W Community and Global Analysis (Click here for syllabus)

By Tom Paradis

After my colleagues and I congratulated ourselves on our new interdisciplinary undergraduate degree at NAU, numerous questions remained. Various classes within our Geographic Science and Community Planning (GSP) BS degree would integrate former geography, GIS, and community planning students. In what ways could we integrate course content and projects that would apply – and appeal – to these diverse student career paths?

First, three structural aspects support integration: 1) All former GGR and PL course prefixes in the course catalog were eliminated, replaced entirely by one prefix, GSP. This should promote a shared identity within the required courses. 2) Numerous former course titles were revised to reflect the learning outcomes “packaged” into distinct courses. While legacies of older courses naturally remain, new titles and combined learning outcomes allowed for new course identities. 3) Following the major’s required 43-44 units of core coursework, students can choose to emphasize in Geospatial Sciences, or Community Planning and Development, each for an additional 18 units, thereby allowing for further specialization if desired.

Within our combined courses, the primary challenge was to teach skills and knowledge applicable to all students regardless of their specialized interests. This is admittedly not something that comes easily to faculty still accustomed to disciplinary “silos,” (that is, the vast majority of us), and will likely provide ongoing challenges for the development of future GeoDesign curricula. For one thing, communication with colleagues is imperative, as is the willingness to compromise and tweak courses for the greater good (i.e. the revised curriculum). In our case, we enjoyed the distinct advantage of operating within one academic department.

Likewise, the concept of GGR 375W Community and Global Analysis was a shared endeavor (even the title was a colleague’s brainchild), resulting in large part from a lengthy curriculum map that detailed all skills and knowledge we desired to see in our “ideal” student. I agreed to insert an applied staff-report assignment into the course, to support the applied planning students. In turn, the planning-based faculty agreed that geographical or community research skills are vital for our planning-oriented students. These students should develop research and writing skills more commonly applied to geographic sciences.

Sources of Inspiration

I took to heart a comment made by Bill Miller of ESRI during a recent personal communication. A true GeoDesign curriculum, he envisioned, would include a successive progression of student design projects, stranded throughout the curriculum (my paraphrasing). Students should learn to “design a chair” in a freshman-level course, working their way into more involved problems no less complex than, say, the conflicts in Kashmir. Why not insert a small design project at the conclusion of this 375W class? The geography folks would gain an opportunity to practice some much-needed creativity, and the planning folks could hone their skills prior to the capstone planning studio.

In sum, here were the apparently antithetical goals for this one course:

  • Include a research assignment and a more applied staff report assignment.
  • Combine a traditional research methods course with a design-oriented project.
  • Integrate local and global perspectives and processes.
  • Provide course content that supports the above goals while remaining relevant for both geography- and planning-oriented students.

I think I did it (ask me again in May). Two particular sources of inspiration led me to a workable solution. The first is the educational approach of Problem-Based Learning (PBL), for which students construct some of their own knowledge and conclusions around a central issue. This approach is strongly related to concepts of active learning, or learner-centered education (LCE). One reliable, applied overview of PBL can be found online, provided by Dr. De Gallow at the University of California-Irvine. The second inspiration came from Dr. Tom Fisher (U. of Minnesota) who outlined his university’s aim to have students “major in a discipline and minor in a challenge” (Fisher 2011). In a similar vein, why not organize this course around such a challenge, which naturally invites interdisciplinary perspectives.

Organizing the course around a challenge: Snowmaking on the Peaks

The “challenge” I chose essentially fell in my lap, that of artificial snowmaking at the Arizona Snowbowl, Flagstaff’s resident ski and snow-play resort. For years the Snowbowl managers have sought to allow snowmaking in conjunction with the National Forest and other business partners. Various tribal and environmental interests have fought the effort for years. The economic rationale, in short, is to extend the snow season and add a layer of predictability to an otherwise erratic winter. The issue therefore involves perspectives of tourism development, nearby metropolitan impacts (Phoenix) on small-town development, transportation planning, environmental science and concerns with reclaimed water, Native-American cultural perspectives on the sacred use of the mountain, and numerous other complex interests. If there is a better example of a “contested space” for students to explore and deconstruct, I don’t know what it is. The concept of the urban “growth machine” in conjunction with competing use and exchange values is in full swing. I am asking the students to analyze and research the multifaceted components of this community and regional challenge.

I am declaring some initial success with this 18-student course. The student conversations and interactions were impressive on the first two days. Students were waiting with hands raised to provide their perspectives, after first sharing with a nearby classmate during in-class exercises. On Day 1, I provided a recent newspaper article that connected a downtown business issue with the promotion of the Arizona Snowbowl. I paired up the students and introduced them to one small facet of this topic by asking them to analyze and share their perspective on the article. (They will conduct a content analysis on many more such articles as the project progresses.) Some students keyed in on the apparent connection between downtown business interests and those of the Snowbowl. Others immediately started to form opinions about whether the business owners highlighted in the article were actually “right”. This provided an important learning opportunity to emphasize that, as practicing social scientists, students were not qualified to form opinions, as they have only explored the tip of the issue and one of many connections. They seemed to get it (we’ll see).

On the second day, students brought in their own articles with a small assignment to evaluate the information, intended audiences, author biases, and their connections with the “challenge” topic. We thereby combined some initial critical thinking with a further discussion of the issue. Their level of engagement and “reporting out” was encouraging. The topic has clearly grabbed their interest, regardless of their intended career path. I trust this is a promising sign of what is to come, especially as they get bogged down in the upcoming literature review phase!

(Expect to see future posts with highlights from the GeoDesign Summit 2012.) 

Learning Outcomes for GeoDesign Programs

– by Tom Paradis

One of the final phases of the Student Learning & Curriculum Design process at NAU involves the creation of a degee program assessment plan. Since 1999 NAU has expected the faculties of all undergraduate and graduate degree programs to determine a manageable set of learning outcomes to facilitate the meaningful assessment of student learning. Like other institutions  of higher education, it has taken some time for the faculty and leadership to learn how to maximize the usefulness of the outcomes approach, admittedly an ongoing adventure. (I was fortunate to have served from 2005-2011 as NAU’s Director of Academic Assessment, which launched me into this arena of higher education.)  

In short, the first step for developing a degree-program assessment plan is to determine a handful of learning outcomes that can be reasonably measured (a potential topic for future posts).  As a valiant attempt to stay focused on GeoDesign here, let’s look specifically at the learning outcomes we developed to represent our new B.S. degree for Geographic Science and Community Planning (GSP) (please see The NAU Approach for more information).

Gaining faculty consensus on a preferred set of program learning outcomes typically requires numerous meetings and plenty of snacks. And, it is reasonable to expect a direct relationship: the more faculty members involved in the conversation, the greater amount of time and energy necessary to form consensus. In our case, only one meeting was required to determine our chosen set of outcomes – the silver lining of a rather small faculty (six tenure-track, full-time professors) who actually get along quite well. Further, the “one meeting” scenario hides the fact that we had already met for nearly two years to fully redesign our geography and urban planning curricula. We had consequently developed a rather prolific curriculum map that already included hundreds of outcomes at the course- and lesson-level of teaching. The curriculum map was already organized around “natural” higher-level topics of outcomes (research, planning, technologies, etc.), which made this final step less complicated. Adding to this, our faculty already had experience with past assessment plans and were familiar with the “language” of learning outcomes. We were therefore not starting from scratch. (If you are, I recommend some background reading on the topic – perhaps get a hold of Linda Suskie’s 2009 Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide. There are also numerous web sites devoted to the topic of “writing learning outcomes”).

With the goal of keeping our assessment process manageable, we decided to focus on four broad learning outcomes, keeping in mind that it is not reasonable (and borders on madness)  to assess everything all the time: 

Learning Outcomes for B.S. Geographic Science & Community Planning:

  1. Communication: GSP graduates will be able to professionally communicate synthesized knowledge through written and oral products appropriate for diverse audiences and perspectives.
  2. Geospatial Techniques: GSP graduates will be able to interpret, design, and produce quality 2D and 3D computer-generated maps and illustrations that communicate spatial knowledge at local, regional, and global scales.
  3. Planning and Participation: GSP graduates will be able to work effectively in teams to design more sustainable places through the synthesis and input of various disciplinary and community perspectives.
  4. Research and Analysis: GSP graduates will be able to apply relevant qualitative and quantitative research methods to conduct scientific, objective inquiries at local, regional, and global scales.   

What struck me about our final decision was how closely these four outcomes seem to align with the GeoDesign Framework presented at the 2011 GeoDesign Summit and elsewhere by Dr. Carl Steinitz, who has proposed for four educational areas to represent a GeoDesign curriculum: (1) Design Professions (2) Geographic Sciences (3) Information Technologies, and (4) People of the Place (temporary reference and graphic). While discussing our potential learning outcomes, this framework had not factored into the conversation. Instead we had focused more on the aforementioned curriculum map and the outcomes we had used previously. Still, they seem to align closely, with an interesting exception:

  1. Communication (Framework: No clear Alignment)
  2. Geospatial Techniques (Framework: Information Technologies)
  3. Planning and Participation (Framework: Design Professions)
  4. Research and Analysis (Framework: Geographic Sciences)

This effort with alignment is more of an academic exercise at this point, as there is no imperative to create four learning outcomes that match the Steinitz Framework. Indeed, both projects (Outcomes and Framework) were produced for different purposes – albeit both oriented to college-level education. Our “Communication” outcome is ever-more vital to include, given the ongoing need to graduate students who can write and speak effectively. This outcome essentially integrates the other three (perhaps an “umbrella” outcome), whereby students learn to effectively communicate their knowledge and learning to various audiences. As such, there is no distinct alignment between this outcome and the four areas of the Framework, and this should not be a problem – just an interesting observation at this point. Communication can be interpreted as an “umbrella” outcome that necessarily integrates the other three.

As for the other three outcomes, they actually match quite well. A fundamental principle of GeoDesign, it seems, is to combine the traditionally separated arenas of geographic research and mapping (understanding what exists) with the design professions (planning for the future). These three learning outcomes therefore may provide inspiration to others who wish to play with the idea of intentionally developing a more cohesive GeoDesign curriculum. As for the fourth area of the Steinitz Framework, People of the Place, I currently view this as an “umbrella” arena that necessarily encompasses the other three but rightfully still deserves its own “place” in the Framework. This is not unlike our Communication outcome that, while involving the other three outcomes, still deserves its rightful “place” in the assessment plan.

I suppose my primary observation then, to summarize, is that it may not be necessary to closely match a degree program’s learning outcomes with this or other GeoDesign frameworks – though it certainly remains a potential option for a faculty to do so. They can still include important elements of GeoDesign that make sense for the context of a particular department and degree program. Further,  given the nearly infinite combinations of potential learning outcomes that faculties can create, a good deal of diversity from one program to another is to be expected. What approaches like that of Dr. Steinitz can provide are important foundations that help us answer the question, “In what ways is our curriculum a GeoDesign curriculum?” As always, that answer is dependent upon the faculty members who teach within and guide their own distinctive curricula.

P.S. Our Future Assessment Plan: During the remainder of this fall semester, we will use these outcomes as the centerpiece of a more comprehensive assessment plan. We need to determine some techniques or methods that provide useful information about how well (or not) students are succeeding at these broad-level outcomes. This will certainly lead to future blog posts on this topic. In the past we have relied heavily on the use of student projects and field presentations in our senior capstone courses, along with student reflective essays and cartographic/GIS products. We will likely continue down this path of emphasizing the use of student projects and presentations (direct evidence) while enhancing them with one or more additional measures such as student focus groups, exit interviews prior to graduation, and input from alumni (known as indirect evidence). These are some of our options, and common ones that are being employed at NAU and at many other institutions.