Tag Archives: geodesign outcomes

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.

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)

What makes an academic program a GeoDesign program?

Based on your own understanding of GeoDesign and what it has to offer, please comment on some attributes, pedagogies, outcomes or other aspects that you would hope to see in a Geodesign-related curriculum, whether graduate or undergraduate, or both. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be comprehensive, as we expect others to add their own perspectives.

– Tom Paradis