Introduction to GIS through river meandering and landslide mapping

Karen Gran, University of Minnesota-Duluth
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Initial Publication Date: June 9, 2014 | Reviewed: June 24, 2014


The primary goal of this lab is to develop basic ArcGIS skills for geomorphology students and give them a taste of what is possible in GIS. The lab is written for the GIS novice, and thus includes detailed instructions for small tasks. The GIS basics are taught via an exploration of river meandering and bank and bluff erosion in a local (turbidity-impaired) stream in Duluth, Minnesota: Amity Creek. The students visited Amity Creek the previous week and mapped in all locations along the river corridor with clear evidence of recent landsliding. This lab leads them through how to bring those field-collected GPS data into ArcGIS to both create maps and make measurements. They also look at river meandering over time at a single site where recent bluff stabilization work was completed to slow channel migration and lower the amount of fine sediment from entering the stream. This lab could be adapted to other locations, although I have also included all of the data specific to this site.

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This assignment is used in a mid-level course in geomorphology. Although only introductory geology and pre-calculus are required pre-requisites, most of the students are junior and senior geology majors. About 20% of the students are geology minors or science education students.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

This lab requires no GIS skills coming in, but it helps if students are computer-literate. Knowledge of basic processes of river meandering, erosion, and deposition is helpful, but not essential. I usually start teaching fluvial processes in lecture the same week we run this lab.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a stand-alone lab exercise, however one of the datasets students use in this lab is a set of GPS data collected in a field lab the previous week. The GPS data cover the locations of all recent landslides along Amity Creek as well as student estimates of height and length of each landslide scar.

One of the reasons I run this lab early on (week 5) is to give students an idea of what they can do in GIS as well as a basic skill-set that involves the ability to import GPS data, create shapefiles on screen, make simple measurements, and export maps. All students complete a multi-week research project later in the semester, and I want them to be able to use basic GIS analyses as a part of their final projects if they choose to do so.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Fundamentally, this lab teaches GIS skills through a geomorphology lens. Students should:
  1. Gain familiarity with ArcGIS, including how to open files and change the display.
  2. Learn how to create shapefiles by importing data files and by digitizing on screen.
  3. Learn how to export maps from ArcGIS.
  4. Learn how to create hillshades and 3D images in ArcGIS.
  5. Learn how to make measurements in ArcGIS.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Practice estimation skills.
Think critically about data quality and uncertainty.
Think broadly about how to extend and refine different approaches to problem solving.

Other skills goals for this activity

Description and Teaching Materials

This is a one week lab that can be completed in 3-4 hours. The lab handout for students is attached as file #1. File #2 is a zip file with all GIS layers necessary to run the lab. This is the file I give to students.

The lab is very methodical in order to give students a reference they can go back to should they want to perform the same kind of GIS tasks later in their final projects. Because of this, I always remind students to A) save their lab handouts and B) follow directions.

Students need to have a location where they can save large datafiles. I have them bring a flash drive because they are not able to save files locally in our computer labs.

All maps created in the assignment are turned into pdf files and posted directly to a class moodle site.
Student lab handout (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 3.2MB Jun9 14)
GIS layers for lab (Zip Archive 64.1MB Jun9 14)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The main issue with this lab is that students need to follow directions. Students who do not know GIS and try to skip ahead have trouble.

There is also the possibility that strange GIS bugs will appear, as they often do.

There is one place in the lab that asks students to work on a specific bend and later on a specific bar. I tell students which bend and bar those are, but sometimes that information needs to be repeated.


Students are graded on their answers on the lab handout and their ability to create three maps.

References and Resources