Geographic Information Systems

Catherine Riihimaki

Drew University
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


Geographic Information Systems describes a computer-based system that aids in the collection, analysis, storage, and distribution of spatial data. Today GIS is used for a wide variety of place-based data sets that contain spatial information such as demographic, economic, political, ecologic, environmental, historical data. In this course, we will learn the principles of GIS and the nuts-and-bolts of using the most popular GIS software package, ArcGIS. Through tutorials and final projects, you will have an opportunity to apply GIS tools to their academic interests across natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities.

Course URL:
Course Size:

less than 15

Course Context:

This is an upper-level course designed for environmental studies students and students from other disciplines. This is currently the only GIS course on campus, although some students apply GIS to projects in subsequent courses and some students do GIS-based internships. Most students have no geology background, but instead are focused on field biology or social sciences.

Course Goals:

Students should be able to use ArcGIS to analyze and display spatial data.
Students should be able to generate and test hypotheses about spatial data.
Students should be able to find, download, analyze and display spatial data from online sources such as the US Census.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

The students perform weekly assignments that allow them to practice specific GIS concepts and ArcGIS features. A midterm exam tests their retention of fundamental GIS concepts. They complete a midterm project that allows them to practice hypothesis testing. A final project builds on the lessons learned in the midterm project.

Skills Goals

Quantitative abilities
Project communication through poster presentations
Computer skills

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

We have an explicit discussion at the beginning of the semester about computer skills (maintenance, organizing files, sharing files) and then practice these skills throughout the semester.
Midterm and final projects are both poster-based, with poster presentations for each.
Quantitative skills are practiced throughout the semester, most explicitly in discussing the article "Lying with Maps."

Attitudinal Goals

Building students' confidence in computer skills.
Developing students' interest in fun visualizations of data.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

We discuss some of the programming background to understand the "quirks" of ArcGIS. The first week is dedicated to helping students become familiar with the needed skills in the course, such as creating and decompressing zip files and accessing networked drives.
I present weekly examples of fun visualizations, sometimes spatial and sometimes not, generally from the website


Weekly homework assignments, a midterm exam, a midterm project, and a final project. Students have classroom time on most assignments, so I can monitor their comfort level with ArcGIS then.


GIS Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 2MB May27 10)