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How do I use GIS in Introductory Geoscience?

Methods to Use GIS at the Introductory Level

We use here a broad definition of GIS to include any methods that develop quanititative interpretations of spatial data. As such there are many ways to introduce GIS to introductory geoscience students.

The trick to using GIS at the introductory level is to demonstrate the capabilities of GIS resources (e.g. data-derived maps) rather than to focus on the particulars of GIS techniques (although such techniques could certainly be used at the discretion of the instructor). Thus, we break down the aspects of a typical introductory class and demostrate methods to incorporate GIS into them:

Using GIS in the lecture hall – This can be as simple as including maps within lecture presentations to developing topic-specific maps for group exercises (e.g. "Think-Pair-Share") using commercial or online GIS resources.

It is important to note that many introductory students are unfamiliar with many mapping/GIS terms and concepts (e.g. DEM, contour maps, etc.).

Using GIS in the lab or field – The instructor can create specialized maps of the sites for field trips or lab exercises or have the students generate the maps prior to or during the exercise. Likewise, spatial data collected during field exercises can be plotted on maps using GIS packages, simple GPS-related software, or even paper maps. Utilizing GPS instruments during the field exercises helps to emphasize issues of measurement precision and accuracy.

Using GIS in exercises – Students can create maps using data from the instructor, online, or collected as part of the exercise. Keep in mind that although having the students utilize standard GIS software may be desirable, many of the fundamental concepts of GIS can be addressed through more basic methods. For example, contouring scattered point data or mapping stream drainage networks by hand introduces the techniques needed to assess the accuracy of computer-aided results. Often a combination of working through data by hand alongside the use of computer-generated maps can emphasize the improvement in analysis and interpretation through modern GIS.

Creating topic-specific maps for geoscience classes

Bypassing perceived barriers to using GIS at the introductory level

The reality is that most geoscience instructors already use forms of GIS in their classes (e.g. geologic maps, geolgic event data such as recent earthquakes or volcanoes). We can add to these existing experiences by introducing the basic GIS techniques of data collection, processing, and presentation used to create these geoscience resources. In addition, there are numerous websites, shareware programs, and other resources available that students and instructors can use to create their own maps.

The inclusion of GIS-based activities at the introductory level is often neglected due to perceived hardware/software/knowledge barriers. There are numerous options to sidestep limited resources within the classroom, lab, or campus. In addition, there are many basic GIS concepts that can be addressed without sophisticated GIS training on the part of the instructor. Overcoming software/hardware barriers


Online Resources

There is a vast amount of GIS data available from state and federal agencies, universities, and private companies. The bulk of this data tends to be at scales of 1:24,000 or smaller (e.g. 1:100,000), and therefore adequate for regional studies/exercises. Data at scales greater than 1:24,000 may be purchased in some cases, developed by private contractors, or generated as part of a class/research project. Online GIS data sources


While products from ESRI such as ArcView and ArcInfo dominate much of the GIS community, there are other vendors and even shareware GIS products. In addition, online mapping utilities or consumer mapping software products can often satisfy mapping requirements for introductory courses at a fraction of the cost. Also available are shareware utilities to download data from consumer-grade GPS units. GIS software resources


When standard GIS software or training is not available, online mapping utilities can provide a valuable resource. While most of these services will not allow user data to be plotted on the maps, they can generate maps at a variety of scales. Some services use scanned USGS quadrangle maps while others construct maps in real-time with user-defined data layers. These maps can be used in numerous field lab and exercise scenarios. Online mapping utilities


Ways to introduce GIS at the entry-level of geoscience education?


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