Last weekend, we convened the Geospatial Technologies in the Liberal Arts conference at Skidmore College to discuss emerging developments in GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and the complementary role of web-mapping applications and open-source software for map and data delivery. This event was notable in several important respects.
This last point is poignant as it focuses on the pedagogical foundations of undergraduate instruction to argue for geospatial technologies in the classroom.
I would agree that geospatial literacy should be a guiding concept for curricular development in the liberal arts today. For our purposes, we can understand this (in broad terms) to include spatial reasoning and problem-solving as well as the tools to support these activities. There are good reasons to include spatial learning in our discussions of curricular competencies, such as quantitative, information, or science literacy. For example, educational research points to spatial aptitude as a potential contributor to academic success in the sciences and that such skills can be developed in the classroom (e.g., Sorby, 2009). We might also speculate how spatial perception influences student performance in the arts and humanities, where creative works are frequently embedded in a spatial geography. Consider the power of educational tools such as the History Engine to lend past events an environmental context through maps or Exhibit, an open-source publishing framework with interactive maps and timelines. The fact that our world is increasingly geospatially-enabled also argues for citizens who understand the value, limits, and potential dangers of spatial data.
What Does Geospatial Literacy look Like?
Our keynote speaker Adena Schutzberg (Executive Editor of Directions Magazine) offered an evening presentation, “Harnessing Geospatial Technology in Liberal Education,” promoting the use of geospatial technology in the classroom without losing sight of the liberal arts mission. In this context, Adena outlined a list of learning outcomes or expectations for our students when they graduate. She proposes that they should have the following abilities:
Geospatial Literacy in the NITLE Community
Many of the conference participants shared Adena’s perspective and offered their own work as applications in practice. For example, David Smith (GIS and Computer Mapping Consultant) described the use of geostacks (e.g., a workflow using ESRI’s ArcGIS, ArcGIS Online, and ArcExplorer 900) to support the Spatial Learning (LENS) project at University of Redlands. To my knowledge this the only initiative to foster geospatial literacy at an institutional level. I would note that Diana Sinton (Director of Spatial Research and Curriculum) oversees this effort and is a former staff member of NITLE.
Mike Winiski (Instructional Development Consultant) and Lloyd Benson (Walter Kenneth Mattison Professor of History) at Furman University also offered a workshop on the use of mobile-mapping to bring field activities to the classroom in real time. I was quite taken by their work to foster critical-reasoning in their students by asking them to interpret patterns and processes in history as a function of the spatial relationships between people and their environment(s).
Our marathon session of lightning talks also revealed a wide range of possibilities to promote spatial learning in the liberal arts. Patrick Kelley (Visiting Professor of Digital Media), for one, demonstrated his work with students at Skidmore College which included the use of Google Earth to create visual art. When is the last time you viewed our planet through the scope of 007’s gun barrel?
I don’t have the space to describe all of the wonderful workshops and presentations offered by our conference participants. However, I encourage you to review the list of participants on our conference website. They are an exceptional group and are among those now leading efforts to outline the role of geospatial literacy in higher-education.
I also offer a personal note of thanks to our conference planners for their leadership and hope this event, “by and for the geospatial community,” gains popularity as a model for geospatial programs at NITLE. The conference planners were (in no particular order): Alex Chaucer (Skidmore College), Jenni Lund (Wheaton College), Jon Caris (Smith College), Sharron Macklin (Williams College), David Tatem (Trinity College), Andy Anderson (Amherst College), and Meg Stewart (currently a Fullbright Fellow).
If you would like to be involved in future program planning for geospatial literacy at NITLE, please give me a call some time!