Landscape Interpretation and Visualization Using A GIS

John Van Hoesen, Green Mountain College


Students utilize digital data of areas they previously explored using traditional topographic map techniques. This assignment allows students to evaluate prior assumptions about spatial relationships while learning basic GIS tools.


Type and level of course
This assignment is used in an undergraduate geomorphology course that students take for elective credit.

Geoscience background assumed in this assignment
Students should have taken Intro to Geology and have a foundation in basic geologic processes. Students should also have completed a prior lab assignment where they are asked to use and interpret paper-based topographic maps.

GIS/remote sensing skills/background assumed in this assignment
No prior background is assumed because this is an elective course.

Software required for this assignment/activity:
ArcGIS 9.2 or higher, Spatial Analyst, 3D Analyst, Excel

Time required for students to complete the assignment:
Usually 2 hours in lab and 2-4 hours outside of class.


GIS/remote sensing techniques students learn in this assignment
Students learn: (1) how to use basic navigation and analysis tools, (2) how to use the raster calculator, (3) how to utilize zonal statistics to extract information from areas of particular interest, and (4) how to manipulate digital data within a three-dimensional environment.

Other content/concepts goals for this activity
The geoscience-specific goals of this assignment are: (1) to strengthen students spatial visualization skills through an alternative way of rendering topographic information and (2) to strengthen students understanding of the relationship between process and form.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Students are required to: (1) develop mental models of topography and then sketch them for comparison with GIS-created topographic profiles and (2) compare and contrast analog versus digital techniques.

Description of the activity/assignment

Prior to this assignment, students complete a separate lab using paper topographic maps to calculate spatial coordinates in both UTM and latitude and longitude, characterize topographic relationships, summarize landscape scale characteristics, and construct topographic profiles. Their primary text is Ritter (2006), which is complimented by excerpts from Miller and Westerback (1988).

This assignment is a follow-up experience so that students can explore the same maps within a digital environment that allows for enhanced two and three-dimensional visualization. These exercises allow students to evaluate how well they visualize and characterize topographic relationships using paper maps and confront assumptions and limitations with respect to their spatial reasoning skills.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students are provided with a lab worksheet to enter answers and asked to complete a reflective essay that is usually the more informative assessment metric. The latter is provided so students can self-report and improved understanding of topographic concepts but more importantly to explore their understanding of how they perceive and interpret topography.
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