Building Consensus for an Idea Lab

I spend a considerable amount of class time each semester advocating “geography is a holistic discipline, infused in all things and in almost every action or choice made, and not merely by people but by all organisms. Geography is inescapable.”

The problem with my perspective is many other disciplines could be argued to have the degree of infusion, mathematics, chemistry, and physics, for example. I retort, “geography is the first science, being people were first interested in their surroundings. Quantification and analysis of environments would come a little later.” Knowledge of geography most likely preceded language. Etching maps in the earth with a stick can accomplish much were no common language exists.

Being a geographer, I am exposed to numerous other fields, biology, physics, chemistry, engineering, graphics arts and design, economics, history, and political science, to name only a few. Being exposed to numerous fields and disciplines does not make me an expert in those area, but it does afford me some common ground when I need to interact with others in those fields. It’s nice being able to talk to a biologists about their spatial problem in their language and help them think about the spatial components of their research.

And therein lies the premise of my efforts to establish a campus Idea Lab. I’m not calling effort, “Idea Lab,” though. I prefer, “RacerWerks,” or “RacerWorxs” or something to that effect. In my in years of working and collaborating and being exposed to a bunch of other educated people, working in various disciplines, I am frequently struck with one persistent thought: How can <discipline_group_1> be unaware of the research and project of <discipline_group_2>? For example, “Why don’t the biologist know that the engineering students are building sensors systems for monitoring water characteristics?”

Sometimes, this is simply, in the words of Led Zeppelin, a “communication break-down.” Departments within the same college, unless individuals make an effort to explore what others are doing, remain uninformed about projects and research. In my opinion, this is really bad for a variety of reasons.

Geography is inescapable.

The fundamental mission of every college and university is the education of young adults. Colleges and universities promote their unique schools and colleges and departments, selling students on the idea they will be instructed how to be critical thinkers, how they will engage in “multidisciplinary research and education,” and how they will learn and grow. Yet, students then told to “choose a major” and are then boxed into a specific field. “Here are your classes you need to take. If you are persistent and motivated, you might get done in 3-1/2 years.”

In a way, the act of choosing a major field breaks the fundamental principle of every college and university. By being boxed-in, students are almost guaranteed to develop a myopic focus related to their chosen field. Then, as they progress through their education career and into a professional career, attitudes about their field becoming calcified, ossified, resistant to new, different, and potentially better ways of doing things. And this is what Education, in general, has to fight against.

To engage and encourage students to learn outside-the-box, we have to show them what out-of-the-box is.

Touring campus for many years, introducing myself as the ESRI Campus Site License Administrator, promoting the GIS software, talking to people how the software can benefit them, and their students, has brought me vis-a-vis with many bright, interesting, cool, and energetic people. But, they all seem to share the common trait of not even seeing how geography applies in their field. “You are a geographer. You know that, right?” And, they look back at me as if I’ve just said, “You are a Smurf. You know that, right?” Then, I have to explain to them how they are demonstrating to their students the importance of understanding spatial relationships, and maps are important tools in building that knowledge. Then, depending on the person, I either get (A) “Wow, I never thought of that before. Maybe I need you to talk to my class. Would you be willing to do that? Or, (B) their face goes blank to dark to glowering, a look much like what those in the Roman Catholic church may have exhibited when Copernicus mentioned, “Hey, the Earth travels around the Sun, not the other way around!” and, then the meeting ends. Then, they avoid even looking at me at campus events, the cafeteria, as if I now have intimate knowledge of a profound secret they’ve been holding onto. Don’t worry, I won’t out you as a “closet geographer.” Yeesh.

Those invested in Education must fight to prevent their students from developing myopic attitudes which might result in later resistance in finding betters way outside their field of solving problems.

So, I guess I want to out everyone as a “geographer” and help people get over themselves, and their allegiances to whatever they feel like they must have an allegiance to, education-wise. To learn, a person has to be willing to explore outside their comfort zone. A biologist needs to know something about GPS, needs to know environmental geography, perhaps geology. A biologist needs to know something about databases, about SQL, and maybe something about programming. And, all of this is tied into geography and can be mapped.

To prevent students from developing entrenched biases – perhaps a better way to phrase this would be to say, “To encourage students to draw experience and knowledge from other fields” – we have to show them how it this is done. The “Major/Minor” model is a dated model. Perhaps I’ll leave that for another topic. To engage and encourage students to learn outside-the-box, we have to show them what out-of-the-box is.

And this is what my idea of RacerWerks will try to address.

Below, is a draft agenda for an upcoming meeting. I have invited numerous people from across campus to join me at a local cafe/deli to layout the idea, determine interest, develop some consensus and support. Then, I’ll continue the effort at various levels throughout my university.

I invite any helpful comments, insights, suggestions, or recommendations.


(*tentative title)

A STEM-based collaborative community of educators and students to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at the University, the local community, and the service region.



Purpose of “RacerWerks”(in no particular order)

  1. to promote education and research of current and emerging technologies, such as Arduino, RaspberryPi, GPS/GIS, Python, MakerBot, Linux, drones and other unmanned sensor systems (USS);
  2. to engage current of future students interested in developing experience in 21st century STEM technologies;
  3. to offer local K-20 educators opportunities to leverage current or develop new skills to implement Common Core Science Standards (CCSS);
  4. to identify a cohort of interested parties and leverage the current knowledge base with the purpose of pursuing grants, contracts, and other funding sources;
  5. to improve and expand the current knowledge base of University with regards to emerging technologies;
  6. to remain competitive among our benchmark universities, some of whom have already implemented or are in the process of developing “MakerLab”-style campus resources;
  7. to engage faculty & staff and encourage a multidisciplinary environment representing many fields, disciplines, and experiences for mentoring, supervising, reviewing, consulting, and analysing projects;
  8. to provide non-science students an opportunity to expand skill sets in emerging technologies;
  9. to collaborate with local business and industries;
  10. to foster local innovation opportunities;
  11. to augment skills and experience of current and future students;
  12. to develop and maintain a pool of skilled local talent to assist with grants and contracts requiring experience in new emerging technologies;
  13. to ensure and foster communication of research interests, current or potential projects;
  14. to anticipate, identify, and address emerging technologies as they become economically feasible;
  15. to assist the University in solving in-house technology concerns, rather than having to contract with non-local 3rd-party entities;
  16. Monies leave the University.
  17. Quality dubious
  18. Faculty, staff, and student removed from using current knowledge, experience; students removed from developing necessary employment skills.


  1. Emerging technologies are rapidly gaining ground within many communities.
  2. Georgia Tech recently created a student-run “MakerLab,” open 24hrs during the week;
  3. University of Louisville recently received a sizeable NSF grant for creating a local “MakerLab;”
  4. Many DIY-ers (do-it-yourself) are developing “gadgets” w/real & tangible benefits;
  5. Emerging technologies are very low-cost ($35-$100 for RPi & Arduino, >$1200 for a 3D printer);
  6. Emerging technologies are useful in real applications, drones, unmanned sensor systems (unmanned aerial systems, unmanned ground/terrestrial systems, unmanned aquatic systems);
  7. Emerging technologies are being employed in non-STEM disciplines, i.e. graphic arts/design, political science;
  8. Many towns and cities have their own “MakerLabs,” or “CreationStudios,” allowing people of all skills to come, learn, explore, and enhance skills;
  9. to coordinate / communicate university-wide STEM efforts;
  10. to identify needs related to training, education, skill sets and knowledge, or interest;
  11. to create a comprehensive STEM-based planned to improve knowledge base
  12. To create and maintain collaborative efforts across disciplines
  13. improve communication among different areas on campus, to plan or address emerging technologies. In other words, does anyone outside Telecommunications Systems Management know what TSM is doing? Or, Graphic Arts/Design? Or, IET?
  14. to engage other disciplines outside traditional science
  15. to encourage collaboration among university units to share knowledge, experience;
  16. Purpose of this Meeting
  17. To identify interested faculty & staff (later, students);
  18. To identify concerns or other related issues associated with this proposal;
  19. What areas, ideas, or issues has the agenda missed?

Comments / Feedback

2 thoughts on “Building Consensus for an Idea Lab

  1. Pingback: Building an Augmented Reality Sandbox | Constant Geography

  2. Pingback: The Not-So-Nimble Case of Higher Education | Constant Geography

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