GIS and GPS Applications in Earth Sciences

Mark Helper


University of Texas at Austin
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs


Theory and practice of geographic information system (GIS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies and their applications to problems in earth sciences. Laboratories and field trips provide hands-on experience with collection, mapping and analysis of geologic and other field data using GPS equipment and GIS software. Topics include map projections, datums and reference frames, cartographic principles, remotely sensed data principles (satellite and aerial photos, image radar, LiDAR), vector- and raster-based data models, geospatial data resources, GIS software applications, GPS constellation and data structure, differential GPS, data logging schemes, GPS postprocessing software, integration of GPS and GIS in mapmaking, geostatistics, extant GIS applications in geology and hydrogeology. Three lecture hours and two laboratory hours a week for one semester, and one weekend field trip. Prerequisite: Introductory to Field and Stratigraphic Methods (a junior-level field course).

Course URL:
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Course Context:

This is a 3 credit hour, upper-division elective for geoscience majors usually taken in a student's senior year. The course has a required two-hour laboratory and a required two-day field trip. The class also enrolls geoscience and other graduate students who have not previously had a course in GIS/GPS techniques. The lab for the class is taught by a TA who is proficient with GIS software and GPS/GPS field hardware.

Course Goals:

Students should be able to:
1) Select from and discriminate among different map projections, datums and coordinate systems;
2) Convert geographically referenced or unreferenced data to a coordinate system and datum of choice;
3) Identify, locate, and/or create metadata for geographic/geologic data sets;
4) Create geographically referenced vector and raster data from unreferenced extant data;
5) Design and create geographic databases for storage and analysis of field data;
6) Apply simple techniques of spatial analysis (e.g. suitability, least cost path, spatial density) to geoscience problem solving;
7) Obtain, store and organize geospatial data from internet resources;
8) Formulate a geospatial approach to test or constrain a geoscience hypothesis;
9) Use geostatical techniques (e.g. IDW, Spline, Kriging) for prediction and modeling;
10) Use the global positioning system in conjunction with GIS software and field hardware to gather field data, including that needed to construct geologic maps;
11) Critically evaluate the quality and differences among GPS data collection modes and schemes.

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

Goals are achieved by:
1) 3hrs. per week of well-illustrated lectures and participatory software demonstrations;
2) 2 hrs. of lab per weeks, with each lab focussed on different skills necessary for effective use of GIS and GPS software and GPS hardware;
3) ~20 hours of class/lab time (largely individual instruction) devoted to student semester projects;
4) A weekend field trip and 2 associated lab exercises devoted to collection and presentation GPS-constrained geological field data;

5) A "Maps of the Week" posting of the best maps submitted for lab each week.

Goals assessment is conducted via:
1) Weekly graded lab assignments;
2) Two, one-hour exams;
3) Final Exam;
4) Graded Semester Project with detailed feedback.