Initial Publication Date: August 24, 2010

"THE LIST": Ideal student outcomes from an intro GIS or remote sensing course

At the 2010 workshop, we asked workshop participants as well as presenters from government and industry* to develop a profile of the ideal student coming out of an introductory GIS or remote sensing course. A strong consensus emerged that provides important guidance for those who teach GIS and remote sensing.


Not surprisingly, everyone's lists included basic competence in GIS or remote sensing software skills, plus a functional knowledge of the fundamentals and terminology of projections, coordinate systems, the electromagnetic spectrum, data structures, resolutions, data management, etc.

What is more interesting is that all of the lists (particularly the employers' lists) emphasized competences that go beyond the nuts and bolts and basic knowledge of GIS and remote sensing. These competences include abilities to:

All profiles emphasized the importance of independence, critical thinking, and communication.

In terms of independence, students should be able to:

  • find/obtain GIS/RS datasets, download them, and prep them for use in GIS or remote sensing analysis.
  • find and interpret metadata; explore and interpret datasets lacking metadata.
  • troubleshoot issues with projections and coordinate systems.
  • figure things out on their own, find answers to their own questions, and use Help menus, books, online forums, and other help resources effectively. Students should be doggedly persistent and self-sufficient.
  • collect data independently in the field and integrated it with a GIS.
  • design and carry out or manage a GIS-based or remote sensing-based independent project.

In terms of critical thinking, students should be able to:

  • evaluate the qualitative/quantitative uncertainty and limitations of data.
  • schematically diagram what is happening to data in a particular analyses or set of analyses and analyze how that influences interpretation of results
  • carry out hypothesis-driven analyses involving spatially referenced data, interpret the results, marshal appropriate evidence, and analyze uncertainties and limitations of interpretations.
  • work out how a particular technique could be used in other analyses and with other data.
  • critically analyze existing maps.

In terms of communication, students should be able to:

  • structure a public presentation and identify and present to diverse audiences.
  • create attractive, informative, clear, and cartographically correct maps.

Implications for teaching GIS and remote sensing

If the focus of a course is on teaching technique using step-by-step instructions with data provided by the instructor, students will not achieve many of the important goals listed above. If students are to become good at, for example, finding and prepping their own data, they must have practice. The same thing is true if we want them to be good at planning an analysis or with communicating results. GIS and remote sensing courses should incorporate practice in these critical skills as an integral part of the course.

*Panelists included:

  • Diane Papineau (GIS Analyst, Natural Resource Information System, Montana State Library, Helena, Montana)
  • John Childs (Consultling Economic Geologist, Childs Geoscience Inc., Bozeman, Montana)
  • Tara Chesley (GIS Specialist, USGS)
  • Allen Armstrong (Gallatin County GIS Manager)
  • Allison Thurmond (Statoil, Norway)
Contributions were also made by the workshop participants.