Category Archives: The NAU Journey

Progress and stories related to our Geodesign-oriented major at Northern Arizona University.

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.

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!

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.

Incorporating Google SketchUp: Thoughts and Experiences?

We would like to learn about further perspectives and experiences with Google SketchUp (and/or other 3D applications) in various courses, curricula, or professional work. We started to integrate SketchUp two years ago here at NAU, after my colleague Dawn Hawley discovered that it would be an effective approach for our planning students to construct 3D renderings of site plans and traditional neighborhood developments (TND). I was hooked immediately.

Last fall I integrated the tool for the first time in my GSP 303 Community Design and Preservation course (formerly PL 303), a prerequisite to the capstone. As a “first run,” I asked the students to complete a simple tutorial (developed by a previous student) on their own. This provided them with minimal skills necessary to create a simple block diagram of their “Activity Center Redesign” term project (What I refer to as “Extreme Makeover: Flagstaff Edition” on the student instructions). Part of the tutorial included the incorporation of a Google Earth image of NAU’s South Campus, asking them to “construct” a new building shell on an existing parking lot. In the past, students could use computer or drawing tools of their choice for this class, but there was no one “standard” tool that we required. Naturally, I had to learn it, too. Perhaps as expected, some students excelled with SketchUp more than others by the end of the semester, and so we are creating (with student help) another, more elaborate tutorial for next year’s class. I will also spend one day in the computer lab with the students so that I can show them all the basics at once – lesson learned! 

I was still curious about how respectable SketchUp had become in the design professions, and if it would be taken seriously by potential employers and other institutions of higher ed. This was a main question of mine as I headed to the GeoDesign Summit this past January. In short, I was pleasantly surprised. Numerous, well-respected firms spoke about using SketchUp as a normal part of their work, with the consistent story of creating 3D designs and then plugging them back into GIS. One faculty member at the curriculum “Idea Lab” claimed that it was a “lot of fun” for her students – something I confirmed as well, after getting past the students’ learning curve.

Dawn has since required SketchUp renderings for her senior studio capstone course (GSP 405C), now recently completed. I intend to increase student competence in my GSP 303 class next fall so that students can later incorporate it more seamlessly into their GIS and studio capstones. At this point we are settling on SketchUp as our 3D tool of choice, though there are notable others out there as well. I believe that as long as students are able to navigate and incorporate one such tool, they should have an easier time learning others in the future (i.e. setting them up for “life-long learning”). Does that assumption seem reasonable? After I learned Aldus Freehand some two decades ago, for instance, it was not a big jump later to move into Adobe Illustrator and others.

As potential prompts for discussion, then, I wonder what employers and others think about incorporating SketchUp into a GeoDesign-oriented curriculum, as we would welcome other perspectives. Is this type of tool (and/or this one specifically) the type of skill that various employers find attractive for their new recruits? For what reasons (either way)? What other 3D software/packages are  you relying on for your own courses or professional work, and why?

Another issue of mine (can’t resist – sorry)  involves to what extent we allow students to “drop in” example buildings/designs from their version of “collective commons” on SketchUp? That’s what I’m allowing now, as students can search for “representative” architectural styles and building types to “drop in” to their diagrams. Should we require that students create their own buildings and facades from scratch, and if so, for what specific purposes? We look forward to your comments with thoughts and/or experiences regarding any of these questions above, if anyone would like to share them here.

– Tom Paradis