Tag Archives: geodesign courses

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.

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.)