Accolades to my Map Use & Analysis Class

I’m sure I’m like many college faculty. We become so frustrated with our students. Frustration builds like a storm as we feel stymied class after class by the apparent lack of knowledge absorption by our supposedly eager students.

“What can I do different to encourage them to soak this stuff up?”

The reality is we have limited control. Student must provide their own energy to learn, even in the face of lackluster performances of faculty. What you get out of Higher Education is more often than not what are are willing to put into your education.

On the other hand, there are students and classes which are completely validating. One student in a course can make the course completely worthwhile, and at times, an entire class becomes infected with a desire to assemble knowledge gained in other classes, or extracurricular activities, and do something interesting.

My Spring 2012 Map Use and Analysis course did some nice work this semester I thought I would share (with their permission.)

New Madrid Fault Zone

What makes these maps different, you ask. People can use many web apps these days for creating maps, so what makes these maps and these students different?

They are using the industry standard GIS software, ArcGIS, from ESRI. The software is notoriously challenging to use, regardless of the propaganda issues by the company. At one time, the number of programming objects available in the software was second only to Microsoft’s .NET programming environment. The software is way-powerful, though, and if the functionality is not present, nearly every language is supported for coding the needed functionality. ESRI’s software controls about 45%-50% of the global mapping market and people skilled in ArcGIS are typically in demand at local, state, national, and international levels, in both public and private sectors.

Students are learning about what I call the “backstage” of mapping activities. Its one thing to sit down to a web app running in a browser and pump out a map. There is still a need for a entire industry of people to know how to create, alter, edit, and manage all of the geographic data floating around the Internet. Those cool map apps do not magically appear; humans fluent in the use of spatial data are making those apps happen. Some of the backstage mapping activities are what my students are learning.

My students are developing an understanding of appropriate uses of data. The Internet represents an overwhelmingly vast repository of data. Literally anyone anywhere can grab an Excel XLS file, or Access MDB file, or a simple comma-separated value (CSV) text file, and push numbers around. That anyone can do this does not mean everyone knows what they are doing, though. Learning how to “lie with maps” is tantamount to learning how to “lie with statistics.” Maps, in one sense, are the visual representation of numbers, and if you know how to manipulate numbers then one can also manipulate the message of a map. And, as we all know, a “picture is with a thousand words.” People who control maps can steer public sentiment and public policy, and in some cases, foreign policy. Think of Colin Powell and his use of maps to incite the discourse in the run-up to deposing Saddam Hussein and the alleged Weapons of Mass Distraction

Yes, I teach my students how to “lie with maps.” I even bought them the book of the same title by Mark Monmonier, “How To Lie With Maps.”

My students chose their own topics, collected their own tabular data and their own spatial data. While I had hoped someone might have selected topics outside the United States. Often, U.S. data is easier to access, and understanding data limitations can be challenging when a language barrier is involved. The only advice I gave them was to pick a topic meaningful to them.

Surprisingly, I was involved very little this semester, as most student sought out each other for help and advice. I took some pride in that; frustrating as it may have been to the students, the most valuable learning experiences arise from overcoming obstacles on one’s own. In one case, I spent about 30 minutes with a student whose database file was uncooperative. We fixed the problem but I could only speculate as to the cause of the issue, as the problem was not self-evident.

Every student adopted a topic not only meaningful to them, but also has the potential of being a stepping stone for further research. Crime and Education, Education and Child Abuse, Prevalence of Community-Supported Farms, Retail Site Location, and Use and Type of Energy Products are all current U.S. domestic policy concerns. I was glad they avoided, “Prevalence of Bigfoot Sitings 1970-2011,” genre of topics, though there is a place for those, too.

The technology behind many of today’s iPhone, iPad, and Android apps arrives via people skilled in knowing how to weave computer technology, programming, and geospatial skills together. And, that is the knowledge my students are working diligently towards.

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