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.

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