Applied GIS

Amanda Schmidt and Joe Martin, Department of Geology
Oberlin College


This is an introductory GIS course that consists almost entirely of in-class exercises using the ArcGIS software to solve various earth science problems. Students gain experience with finding, downloading and preparing data, workflow development, spatial analysis and Python scripting.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is an upper level geology course with the introductory geology course as a prerequisite. It fulfills one of the elective requirements for the geology major and the research methods requirement for the environmental studies major. About 75% of the students are geology majors or minors, and the remainder environmental studies majors. The course is very demanding with a lot of work, but is always full (course capped at 16 students, the size of the computer lab).

Course Content:

This course teaches students the fundamentals of GIS, the use of ArcGIS, basic Python scripting and cartography with an emphasis on earth science. The course is centered around 8-9 lab exercises each taking 1-2 weeks with a significant final project. Students learn how to solve problems with GIS, communicate results, and troubleshoot GIS issues.

Course Goals:

  • Solve problems using GIS from developing appropriate questions that have a spatial analysis component, to locating and acquiring appropriate data sets, and conducting the analysis in an organized and documented way.
  • Communicating the results of the analyses with cartographically accurate and complete maps, and other audience appropriate maps, figures and reports.
  • Apply techniques learned in class to consulting-style problems in a team environment
  • Troubleshoot issues that arise in all stages of spatial problem solving by working with peers, using help files, and using online forums in a productive and appropriate manner.
  • Competence in using the ArcGIS suite of software to solve a variety of problems.
  • Exposure and experience writing basic Python scripts, and an understanding of basic computer programming concepts.

Course Features:

The course is made up of three primary elements, lab exercises, a "GIS Portfolio", and a final project. Most of class is spent on a series of lab exercises students work on during and outside of class time. The GIS portfolio is a collection of resources the student maintains over the course of the class to help them with GIS in the future. The independent project is completed in pairs throughout the semester, with significant in class work time devoted to it towards the end of the semester.

Links to the exercises are provided below:

  • Students start out the class with two exercises from Barbara and David Tewksbury's GIS for Geoscientists class.
  • Lab 1: Introduction to ArcGIS
  • Lab 2: Introduction to Coordinate Systems and Projections
  • Lab 3: Changes to the Green River
  • Lab 4: Hurricanes
  • Lab 5: Sea Level Rise
  • Lab 6: Rasters
  • Lab 7: Hawai'i
  • Lab 8 LiDAR

Course Philosophy:

Much of this course and its content was based upon Barbara and David Tewksbury's excellent and well-documented GIS for Geoscientists course. Most recently many of the exercises were modified to contain a significant Python scripting component, to introduce basic computer scripting technologies to students with no prior programming experience, a skill that we believe to vital for GIS work and science in general.


For each lab exercises, students must turn in some combination of maps, reflections, and workflows. Maps are evaluated on their usability, aesthetics, and demonstration of the analyses preformed. The reflections explain what the students accomplished and learned without using technical jargon. Workflows are graded on how easily one could use it to replicate the analyses. See rubric document,


Applied GIS Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 171kB Feb26 18)

Teaching Materials:

Rubrics for recurring assignments (Acrobat (PDF) 222kB Feb26 18)

References and Notes:

Barbara and David Tewksbury's excellent and well documented GIS for Geoscientists was integral for the development of this course/