From Project to Program: The DePauw University GIS Center Engaging the Campus with GIS
by M. Beth Wilkerson and Carol L. Smith, DePauw University
An online map of Mediterranean archaeological sites… gratis copies of the book GIS for Everyone… a faculty interest group… the proverbial “free lunch”…
Taken together, this modest list outlines the initial components that ultimately led to the creation of a thriving and sustainable Geographic Information Systems (GIS) program at DePauw University.
The concept of GIS was first introduced to DePauw in 2002 via the Collaboratory for GIS and Mediterranean Archaeology (CGMA – http://cgma.depauw.edu), an inter-institutional venture directed by Dr. Pedar Foss, Edwin L. Minar Professor of Classical Studies and Associate Professor of Classical Studies, and Dr. Rebecca Schindler, Associate Professor of Classical Studies and Chair of the Classical Studies Department. In 2004, with their help and with funding from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Venture grants and support from the Lilly Endowment for DePauw’s 361 Degrees technology programs, DePauw University officially began an initiative to promote the use of GIS and spatial technologies throughout the university.
Over the past six years, that foundation has grown from a simple effort to support a few faculty members’ personal research into a vibrant, rich program that enables instructors to engage students in the classroom utilizing spatial tools, allows administrative departments opportunities to leverage locational elements in their work, and continues to support individual faculty research projects. Through the work of GIS program staff and the tools and resources available in the GIS Center, DePauw students, faculty members, and staff members receive one-on-one consulting, engage in spatial software workshops, participate in annual GIS events, and obtain focused support for their projects. As a result, during the 2009-2010 academic year, the GIS Center supported nearly forty GIS projects, spanning fifteen academic or administrative departments and including seventeen faculty members, ten staff and eighteen students.
Like the old folk story “Stone Soup,” the evolution of DePauw’s GIS program represents the contributions and cooperation of many, with the sum being much greater than the separate parts. While there is no recipe for developing a successful GIS program that works in every case for every institution, some of the key “ingredients” that we used at DePauw and which we share here might, when combined with locally available resources and personnel, help promote the use of GIS in your organization.
The broth (water): A clear guiding vision
As with any institutional initiative, whether academic, administrative, or other, there needs to be an underlying vision that is at the heart of the endeavor and that continually permeates and focuses related efforts and actions. At DePauw, as is true of most liberal arts institutions, the primary focus is students. DePauw University’s vision states, “DePauw intellectually challenges students and inspires them to lead and to serve in an increasingly diverse and rapidly changing world.” Embracing this vision, the GIS program at DePauw is passionate about providing students with tools and experiences that provide them with a technological advantage to compete in the real world. As a result, the program concentrates on enhancing students’ learning through rich engagement in research and scholarship, enabling students to conduct research and course projects with tangible benefits that impact the community, and engaging students in communicating their research results to increase GIS awareness across campus.
Close collaborations between faculty members and GIS program staff result in symbiotic relationships between technology and academic departments that enable faculty members to devote their time to the content-specific aspects of a course or project while a GIS specialist focuses on the geographical and technological elements. In addition, these partnerships enhance our students’ spatial analytical skills and increase their awareness of the range of tools available to them, providing them with a greater appreciation of how powerful GIS can be in answering a wide array of research questions. Through these collaborative efforts, students participating in the courses and student research projects are given the opportunity to gather and analyze data using cutting-edge tools that may not have been available otherwise. Moreover, by applying GIS concepts, students are offered the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the content that they are studying, thus enhancing their learning potential.
Like the water surrounding the ingredients in the soup, we feel a successful GIS program must ensure that the institution’s core mission is the focus of GIS endeavors. In other words, spatial technology should not be used for technology’s sake, but rather the introduction/incorporation of GIS should be guided by pedagogical priorities such as enhanced student learning and critical thinking.
The main ingredient: A GIS support person
One of the most important first steps in laying the groundwork for the successful GIS program at DePauw was to hire a GIS Specialist, a dedicated resource person who not only had technical knowledge in GIS and/or other related STEM areas (e.g., computer programming, math), but who also had the ability to work with faculty members, students, and staff in various teaching, research, and administrative settings. This person was tasked with three basic goals: 1. to promote GIS awareness and activities across campus; 2. to encourage and expand faculty expertise and curricular uses of GIS; and 3. to serve as a resource for faculty, staff, and students interested in working with GIS. As members of the DePauw community became aware of the powerful capabilities of GIS, many quickly recognized its utility and benefit to their particular area of interest. The issue for them, then, became one of overcoming the obstacles of time and inertia to learn and incorporate new technology routinely in classroom, research, and administrative endeavors. We addressed this issue by adapting our GIS support to the needs of these GIS “clients” in two ways:
- First, for faculty and staff members interested in learning the technology, the GIS Specialist consulted with them one-on-one to help them learn GIS tools that would enable them to visualize and/or analyze their particular datasets. As these individuals became more comfortable and knowledgeable with the software, they could undertake more self-exploration, become more self-sufficient, and ultimately only need to ask “how-to” questions as they worked with their data. In addition, because faculty and staff time comes at quite a premium, the GIS Specialist developed “quick-hit” workshops. These were quite successful because each lesson focused on a single technique of broad applicability (e.g., how to download and analyze digital elevation data), provided step-by-step instructions that could be used as a later reference, and lasted no more than one hour (including practice time). Over time, this collection of lessons has grown into a resource from which faculty members can request “quick-hit” workshops for their classes.
- Second, for those individuals who did not have the time, need, or inclination to learn GIS technology (a group substantially larger than those described in the previous paragraph), the GIS specialist and her student staff members worked directly on technical projects for them. These projects ranged from creating a single map for a publication or class lecture, to performing detailed analyses of large and complex research datasets, to developing and teaching lab exercises for a course. For each project, the GIS specialist and her team followed three guiding principles that shaped their approach: express a willingness and desire to help, listen to the needs of the client, and evaluate his/her data carefully to develop a plan that utilizes appropriate tools and techniques to visualize and/or analyze the data in a spatially meaningful way.
For all types of projects, and particularly for administrative projects, it is helpful if the GIS specialist begins by demonstrating to the interested individual how GIS technology can be used in their discipline or department. Often, the best way to lay the groundwork for such an initial meeting is to create a proof-of-concept product that uses data relevant to that person’s area of study or responsibility. For example, our specialist created maps showing current student home locations overlaid with various types of census data (median household income, population of high school-aged children) prior to meeting with the vice president of admissions to discuss possible collaborative opportunities.
Providing GIS support on campus using this type of generalist approach does present challenges to the specialist. In general, it would be easiest to only assist faculty members with their research projects, since researchers can easily identify pieces of their projects that can benefit from GIS, and the resulting GIS programming support needed is typically very clearly defined. In contrast, classroom-related project support needs can vary broadly from instructor to instructor, which requires the GIS specialist to be much more flexible in her level and type of involvement. For example, in some projects she may simply provide assistance in creating a map or other course-related study materials or present a brief orientation to students about a particular technique or piece of software, whereas in others she might help develop project assignments or co-teach some class sessions with the faculty member. One might initially think that tackling technical projects from this wide range of type and disciplines would be a daunting task for the GIS specialist, but in our opinion, the truth is far from that. Rather, we have found that the variety of disciplines, topics, and tasks serves to keep the work fresh, challenging, and exciting.
We believe the most essential ingredient to a GIS program “soup,” then, is a GIS specialist. In addition to being technologically savvy, this person needs to be flexible, willing to work with individuals to the degree that they need/want, and able to act as a catalyst (and occasional evangelist) to advocate the use of GIS technology as an effective tool.
Hey, we’re making soup here!: Getting the message out
One of the early challenges for developing a thriving GIS program at DePauw was to establish a critical mass of awareness about GIS, how it might be beneficial, and where one might go to learn more. In keeping with our stone soup analogy, the “soup” becomes better as news of what is happening spreads.
Undoubtedly, word-of-mouth from faculty members, staff, and students who have worked with the GIS Center initially provided a powerful means of extolling the virtues and pedagogical possibilities of using GIS technology and spreading the word about the people in the GIS Center who could help them. At DePauw, conversations of this nature are supplemented by formal faculty forums, where faculty members give presentations on their research activities. These gatherings bring together faculty members from all disciplines to discuss the research and the tools they used in conducting that research. Similarly, faculty members have many opportunities within their departments and across campus to discuss pedagogical development in association with their courses, creating more possibilities for the GIS Center to work with other instructors. Finally, students readily share class projects involving spatial technologies via capstone course presentations. These presentations often are attended by faculty members from within and outside the course’s discipline, providing opportunities to promote awareness and use of GIS and spatial technologies throughout the University.
One particularly effective means of communicating about GIS activities around campus is DePauw’s annual GIS Day celebration. GIS Day is a worldwide event held each year on the Wednesday during the National Geographic Society’s Geography Awareness Week. Since 2004, the DePauw GIS Center has joined hundreds of organizations around the world in sponsoring a GIS Day event. Each year there are many interesting displays and activities at DePauw’s celebration, but a perennial favorite is the poster session where students, faculty members, and staff from various disciplines and departments across campus share how they apply GIS in their respective fields. This session is augmented with GIS-focused posters displaying spatial data related to current events (e.g., renewable resources) and interactive displays supplied by the GIS Program staff and by displays from outside vendors and companies that use GIS. Refreshments are served (feed them and they will come!) and a fun “GIS Quest” allows participants to enter for a drawing to win geographically-themed prizes, including a handheld GPS. This casual and relaxed setting provides an environment for attendees to learn about the impact of GIS both on and off DePauw’s campus. Peers can informally share GIS ideas and successes, brainstorm potential uses of spatial technologies in their own projects or courses, and explore ideas with the GIS Program staff. This critical mass of people combined with the numerous applied visual examples creates a “buzz” about GIS around campus that often serves as a catalyst to spawn new project and course ideas.
Figure 6. Time lapse video of approximately 30 minutes of DePauw’s 2009 GIS Day poster session (in the video 1 second = 1 minute).
In our experience, these and other activities (e.g., email newsletters, serving on committees) helped to establish and grow the GIS program at DePauw. The collaborations across campus helped GIS to take root and to organically spread to other areas. As such, some faculty members have become “repeat customers” who regularly use GIS in their courses, research, or scholarly work every semester, while others work with the GIS specialist and her staff only occasionally when the need arises.
About a year after the GIS Program began, a renovation of DePauw’s Percy L. Julian Science and Mathematics Center, an academic building that hosts many science-related academic departments as well as the science library, provided physical space for the creation of a GIS Center. The GIS Center provides a core set of GIS-related resources for faculty members, staff, and students in a single location, centrally located near computer classroom labs, the campus technology data center, and various science departments. The GIS Center houses office space for the GIS specialist and student staff and state-of-the-art equipment for working on GIS projects, including powerful workstations with GIS software such as Google Earth Pro and ArcGIS, a large-format scanner, and a large-format plotter. The Center also provides ample table space to examine printed maps, a data projector for instructional workshops and group study, wall space to showcase poster examples of completed GIS projects, and it stores several handheld GPS units and a research-grade GPS that can be borrowed by faculty members for their classes or research.
The establishment of the GIS Center was critical to the development of the GIS program at DePauw. The centralized location of equipment, physical space, and experienced personnel make the GIS Center a convenient, one-stop shop for information, help, and technology related to GIS.
Contributors to the soup: Faculty, staff, students, and administrators
Finally, as with many successful initiatives under the umbrella of 361 Degrees, the GIS program at DePauw originated out of a need suggested by members of the faculty. Initial luncheons and meetings of interested faculty members led to internal grant proposals, which resulted in the hiring of the GIS specialist and the launching of the initiative to promote awareness and use of GIS and spatial technologies throughout the university. This initiative was supported by a GIS advisory committee comprised of faculty members who helped promote GIS awareness and activities and who provided advice and support to both the GIS specialist and the administration, playing an essential role in the early development of the GIS program. The committee was composed of individuals who were interested in working with GIS in their research and classrooms. Those faculty members’ projects were then used as early case studies showcasing the potential of GIS, and, as such, helped advocate use of the technology to their colleagues and to the administration.
Soon, rapidly expanding interest and use of spatial technologies led to the formal integration of the GIS Program into the larger context of DePauw’s already strong technological support programs. In particular, the GIS program became part of DePauw’s Instructional and Learning Services department, which provides instructional technology support for faculty members and students who make use of technology in their teaching and learning. Within this framework, the GIS program benefited from established and proven support programs and borrowed from their existing connections with faculty members, staff and students. Moreover, the administrators within these programs encouraged experimentation and provided the freedom for the organic growth of GIS as an emerging technology.
Additional support for the GIS program has come from the students in two key ways. First, the GIS Center benefits greatly from the involvement of numerous Information Technology Associates Program (ITAP) student interns and Fifth-Year interns. These interns became proficient with GIS technology and worked with the GIS Specialist on faculty, staff, and student GIS projects. Second, student GIS projects associated with courses has helped promote GIS awareness via the GIS Day poster session. For example, students from the GEOS 205: Introduction to GIS course routinely work on major GIS projects that are highlighted at DePauw’s GIS Day event.
The soup: GIS @ DePauw
While this story and the examples we have described apply specifically to DePauw, we feel that there is a strong take-home message here consistent with the “Stone Soup” story–everyone contributes to the success of the final product–and we believe that this message is transferable to other instructional technology programs as well. Any beginning program must be scaffolded by a clear, consistent philosophy about how instructional technology fits into the institutional mission and have a minimal critical mass of faculty members who will use, support, and promote that technology or method. Such faculty advocates can provide successful examples for their colleagues that highlight the potential benefits of the techniques supported by the program. In addition, having administrative support (financially and within a user support environment) and freedom to grow organically is invaluable. Furthermore, one should not underestimate the value of students in developing the program.
The DePauw 361 Degrees vision is grounded in the belief that the connections that technology enables, not necessarily the technology itself, are most important to students, faculty members, and staff. With this in mind and through experience with various instructional technology projects and activities over the past few years, DePauw has adopted a number of guiding principles about how to effectively leverage change in the use of technology in teaching and research on our campus: focus on collaborative partnerships, engage a broad set of stakeholders (faculty, students, key departments, etc.), and put technologies and tools in the hands of students. As a core component of 361 Degrees, the GIS program inherited these core values that serve as the foundation of providing support that reinforces student engagement and student-centered research and promotes GIS prevalence across the university through the application of spatial analytical techniques.
When the DePauw GIS initiative began in 2004, GIS was essentially an unknown technology utilized by a select few in a couple of disciplines. Today the DePauw GIS program is a sustainable program providing spatial support for numerous projects involving a variety of students, faculty members, and administrative departments from all areas of the institution.
For a graphical timeline outlining the growth experienced by DePauw’s GIS Center, visit http://www.depauw.edu/univ/gis/GISTimeline.
About the Authors
M. Beth Wilkerson, GIS Specialist at DePauw University, holds an M.S. in applied mathematics with emphases in computer science and physics from the University of Illinois. Before coming to DePauw, she spent 11+ years as a software engineer in the oilfield services industry, programming 2D and 3D seismic interpretation/visualization systems.
Carol L. Smith, Chief Information Officer at DePauw University, holds an M.S. in instruction systems technology from Indiana University School of Education and leads DePauw’s 361° IT programs, which are designed to enhance and transform teaching and learning. Smith is on the board of directors of the Indiana Higher Education Telecommunication System and an active member of EDUCAUSE and NITLE.
originally published by Academic Commons in 2010