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.) 

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

  1. Pingback: Geodesign: A Bibliography | GIS and Science

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