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.

Crossing Chasms: Geodesign and the Role of Distance in Tourism

– By Alan Lew

Over the years, tourism scholars have come up with a many ways to segment tourist markets so that different products can be more precisely targeted to potential travelers. Probably the most famous of these is Stanley Plog’s division of the both travelers and destinations into “psychocentrics” (associated with security, familiarity and mass products) “allocentrics” (associated with risk taking, extocism and niche products).  Although many different terms have been applied to this safety-risk dualism, with the goal of showing nuances, the fundamentals of the dichotomy have remained consistent.

Like others, I am not going to venture far from the basic model, but I do hope to offer some insights by introducing a geodesign perspective that has not, to my knowledge, been suggested before.  That perspective is the concept of “distance”. There are essentially three forms of distance: Geographical, Social and Psychological. Each of these can tell us something about the different ways people travel.

Geographical distance is based on absolute measurements on the planet earth, measured in miles or kilometers. For tourists, it becomes quickly complicated by complicated roads and pathways between where we are and where we want to go.  GPS receivers and online maps help us to navigate in a mostly more efficient and timely way, assuming they are based on current and correct geographic information. 

However, for tourists, a more desirable route may be one that encompasses certain kinds of scenery or attractions, which can be highly subjective to the individual tourist. What is happening here is the transformation of geographical distance into social and psychological distance.

Social distance is how the majority of people in a society define the distance between one place and another. This can be totally different from geographic distance. Political borders, for example, are a more formal social structure that has a huge impact on travel distance – both actual and perceived. One reason, among many, is that political borders increase the time it takes to get to a place, which is often be a more important distance factor than actual geographic measurements. 

Another example is the distance between different socio-economic groups in a society. We talk, for example, about the huge distance between the privileged lives of those in houses on the hill (the upper class) and homeless street life on skid row. We talk about not wanting to go to certain neighborhoods for safety and cultural.  These perceptions, while grounded in society, also have major psychological components.

Psychological distance is how our brains perceive distance. We can only see clearly over a fairly short distance (even with glasses on). In addition, our brains can only comprehend and process a somewhat limited amount of information. Where we focus our eyes is what we cognize and remember the best.  While we see the background and larger context of objects, elements in that broader scan are not stored in detail in our memory.

For tourists, this means that we can only comprehend a selected part of the destinations we visit. To fully appreciate requires time, repeated visits, curiosity, an openness to the unexpected, and patience. Most mass tourists are not able to devote themselves to a place in these ways, and so the tourism industry does its best to help direct a short term focus on immediate objects in front of the tourist – not in the distance.

Together, geographic distance, social distance and psychological distance are key elements that reflect the integrated nature of geodesign. And together, the challenges of overcoming geographical distance, social distance and psychological distance  contribute to making a lot of travel a short-sighted experience, even when we travel far (for the psychocentrics among us).  On the other hand, some travel can traverse great chasms and lead to unknown worlds, even if the actually journal is very close (form allocentrics).  It all depends on distance to which the tourist is willing to go….

(this is a revised version of an original blog post at TourismPlace.com)

Call for GeoDesign Case Studies

By Shannon McElvaney, ESRI (posted by Tom Paradis)

Esri is actively seeking GeoDesign case studies for possible publication. The objective is to demonstrate GeoDesign principles in practice as a way to communicate these concepts to folks who are interested in learning more about GeoDesign. The cases need to be actual cases, not theoretical demonstrations. Cases may qualify for use in a GeoDesign Case Study book (currently being written), or they may be used as GeoDesign stories for ArcNews.

The stipulation is that the GeoDesign case studies involve some aspect of:

  • ArcGIS technology
  • design in geographic space
  • identification of issues
  • process evaluation and analysis
  • impact simulations
  • fast iteration
  • alternative scenario generation and comparison
  • decision making

Additionally, the case study could involve but are not restricted to demonstrating:

  • Sketching
  • Workflow integration
  • Collaboration
  • 3D and 4D visualization
  • Holism and interdependency
  • Science- and value-based decision making

All materials (e.g., written contributions, images, photos, maps, models, data) must allow permission for use in publication.

If you are interested in sharing your GeoDesign solutions or have questions, please contact Shannon McElvaney at smcelvaney@esri.com.

The GeoDesign Industry Needs Your Students

by Doug Walker – June 27, 2011

(Doug Walker is president and principal of Placeways LLC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Tom Paradis