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A new and complete Environmental GIS Course

09-02-2022 03:30 PM
Esri Notable Contributor
5 3 5,054

I have created a complete course in environmental GIS and am offering it here for faculty to use or modify as they see fit, and for students to take to further their environmental GIS journey.

It is my hope that this course provides a useful model of how Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be effectively woven into a university environmental sciences program.  This course introduces students to ways in which geotechnologies (GIS, remote sensing, GPS/GNSS, and web mapping) can help them put their environmental interests into action by fostering skills in data collection, mapping, analysis, and communication in tandem with an ethic of caring for and protecting the water, air, soil, plants, animals, and ecosystems of Planet Earth and the people who dwell there.  This course and these strategies can be used in universities, technical, tribal, and community colleges, and even in secondary school classrooms where there is a particular focus on outdoor education, field work, and STEM. 


Some of the investigations, data, and maps in the GIS course that is described in this essay.

All environmental issues—water quality, habitat loss, energy, climate, natural hazards, invasive species, and many more—take place somewhere, affecting people’s lives as well as their environmental surroundings.  In addition, these issues often exhibit spatial patterns that can be mapped and analyzed, and require the analysis of data in the form of 2D and 3D maps, aircraft and satellite imagery, real time data feeds from the Internet of Things, and much more. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is an exciting way for students to put their interest and passion for all things about the Earth and the Environment into action in ways that are in demand in the workplace by nonprofit organizations, government agencies, academia, and private industry and incredibly relevant to our 21st Century world.   GIS provides theoretical foundations and practical applications for social and ecological problem-solving. 

I developed this course and have successfully taught it twice so far at the Au Sable Institute, refining the course each time with updates to tools, approaches, and based on student feedback.  Through a series of readings, videos, and hands-on exercises covering a variety of environmental themes, issues, and scales, the course invites the students to learn the fundamentals modern mapping, including projections, symbology, classification, and analysis.  Students build their own web mapping applications, including dashboards and story maps.  They gain skills and confidence to empower them to be able to conduct their own field studies and use maps as analytical tools to build a brighter, more sustainable, more resilient tomorrow.  Attached is the syllabus, and the entire course is presented in a story maps collection of 28 story maps, as follows:   

Each of the 5 weeks of the course contains 1 story map for the readings and videos, 1 for the discussion about the readings and videos, 1 for the hands-on activities, 1 for the discussion of the hands-on activities and the sharing of maps and apps, and 1 for the quiz.  These comprise 25 story maps.  In addition, I provide 1 story map for the course outline, 1 for the overview, syllabus, and course maps, and 1 for the implementation plan, where I ask students to articulate how they will apply what they have learned in this course. 

On the technical side:  I make extensive use of story maps and a story map collection.  Story maps and story map collections are straightforward to set up, can be accessed from anywhere, can incorporate web maps, video, images, text, and other multimedia elements, and can be easily edited and updated.  Faculty:  Consider how you could deliver your own course content via story maps, as I did here.  In addition, consider using a story map collection to bundle together content you want students to examine.  Students:  Consider the story map collection to showcase work that you have done.   

Part of the story map collection that provides the content for this course.Part of the story map collection that provides the content for this course.

Part of the story maps collection through which you can access the content for this course.

I am sharing the course so that you can modify it for your own needs. 

The six course learning outcomes are to: 

  1. Identify ways in which GIS, maps, and geo-visualizations are providing a common language and framework for communication and solving problems.
  2. Apply cartographic design principles such as symbology, color, and classification methods to create, modify, and critically evaluate effective maps and visualizations.  
  3. Analyze environmental and other data spatially with web GIS tools using a variety of techniques, including visualization, filtering, map overlay, routing, mean center, and proximity.
  4. Demonstrate how to create and map data from spreadsheets, from GPS data, from field surveys, from joining data, and from pre-existing maps.
  5. Identify how society influences mapping, and how mapping influences society, through data availability, data quality, map projections, crowdsourcing, location privacy, the Internet of Things, and design, and examine the connections between Christian ethics, GIS, and environmental science.
  6. Create multimedia 2D maps and 3D scenes that effectively communicate an environmental issue, event, or theme, via results of a research investigation.

Purpose:   The purpose of this course is to lay a firm foundation for the successful use of GIS by introducing students to the ways that digital maps from GIS can be created, symbolized, and used in visualizations to solve problems and serve as communication tools in environmental science and beyond.  Through this course, students gain fundamental skills in cartography and spatial analysis with an environmental focus through hands-on work.  But equally importantly, they gain understanding of the technological and societal implications that these tools have on 21st Century society and how students can chart their own pathway forward using these tools and perspectives.

Prerequisites:  This course has no prerequisites, other than a willingness to learn, an inquisitive mind, and a desire to be a positive change agent in the world 🙂.   It is highly advisable, however, for students to be comfortable with operating a web browser, understanding the difference between file types (DOCX, JPG, PNG, XLSX), and be comfortable with managing files and folders on their own device (laptop or tablet). 

Required Texts and Materials:  Given the rapidly evolving nature of geotechnologies, rather than choosing a GIS text, I have created and assembled my own required readings and videos for this course. These are given in sequential order in each week of the 5-week course.  I believe however that GIS textbooks still have a relevant and viable place, as I have written about elsewhere in the Esri community space and in video form.

Videos:  Students will watch and reflect upon a set of 1 to 3 short videos each week that I created.

Readings and Discussions:  I have created 5 sets of readings, one set of each week.  Videos are sometimes embedded within these readings.  Activities (hands-on work with GIS and maps) build on the reading content of each module and allow students to work in a problem-solving mode with the topics raised in the readings.  Therefore, I recommend that they work through the readings first before completing the hands on activities for each week.  At the end of each week’s readings, students are asked a short set of questions.  If you are using this in a face-to-face course or in an online course using a Learning Management System, I encourage you to include these questions in a discussion board or as in-class discussions, so that students can all be learning from each other.

References:  Students are provided with a reference list of articles and other resources in this course.  I encourage them to feel free to explore these as they have time, or even after they complete the course, to keep learning and moving forward.  They are not graded on any of these outside readings unless they are included in the main readings for each week.

Hands-on Activities and Discussions:  Maps and geo-visualizations are inherently so compelling, so visual, and so appropriate for addressing real and serious issues in our world (from population to water, from biodiversity to health, from equity to energy, and more) that each week students have the opportunity to work with data, tools, and maps to address these issues.  For this component, students will need to have a creator/publisher role within their ArcGIS Online organization, from their personal use account or their account at their school or university.  At the end of each hands-on activity, they are presented with a short set of questions to respond to in a discussion forum.  They are often asked to share the URLs of the maps they create in this courses so everyone can see these maps and learn from each student's work.

Quizzes:  At the end of each week, students are given a short quiz of 6 questions.  Rather than viewing them as a stress-inducing item, I encourage students to use them as a self-assessment opportunity to gauge how much they are learning and moving forward.

Weekly themes:  The course runs asynchronously and online for 5 weeks and is organized around the following themes: 

Week 1:  Get Mapping!  Introduction to GIS in Environmental Science
Week 2:  Space, Place, and Time. 
Week 3:  From the Field to the Lab.
Week 4:  Surveys, Stories, and Spatial Analysis.
Week 5:  The Future is Now.

Each week, students learn core content, develop a set of technical skills, and address a societal issue associated with geotechnologies. 

Each week, I present a course map of content, skills, themes, and societal issues that will be investigated; a sample of which is below: 


Assessment:  As I frequently receive questions from the academic community about how course content is assessed using GIS, for this course, I assessed it this way:

Activities Discussions:             5 activities x 10 points each =                                                     50 points
Readings Discussions:            5 discussions x 5 points each =                                                  25 points
Quizzes:                                     5 quizzes (each is 6 questions) x 3 points each =                   15 points
Implementation Plan:             1 plan x 10 points =                                                                      10 points

Total:                                                                                                                                                  100 points


As of 2022, after teaching the course twice, I offer these reflections:

1.  Students respond well to the hands-on nature of the course.   The hands-on activities and the migration of GIS to the cloud, manifested in ArcGIS Online, made the perfect match.
2.  Students respond well to the use of ArcGIS Online.  ArcGIS Online provides ways for them to gather field data (we primarily used Survey123), map data, analyze data, and communicate the results of their investigations. 
3.  ArcGIS Online meshes well with any Learning Management System (LMS).  I have used ArcGIS successfully within Populi LMS, Moodle, Blackboard, D2L Brightspace, Canvas, and probably others I cannot recall right now!
4.  I first taught the course I developed during 2021, while COVID was in full swing.  Traditionally, the institute I taught it in would offer many of its environmental short courses on its beautiful campus in Michigan, but that obviously wasn't happening in 2021.  Offering this course online was a natural fit and continues to work well even after this institution resumed its face to face (F2F) offerings.  The course as I built it could be easily transformed to a F2F course at any time in the future.  This same story can be applied to many institutions that I have the honor of working with.
5.  The course integrates well within an educational institution's environmental mission, helping students to become interested in the institute's other offerings and the environmental offerings on their own campuses.  The course also is opening up conversations with the other GIS offerings (currently environmental GIS applications with a focus on UAVs) and how to integrate GIS workflows and tools into other courses on campus (ethics, biology, conservation, and others).   GIS has great applicability to any university (or school) focused on environmental issues or STEM.  The recent expansion of the ArcGIS Climate Hub and other environmental tools is only a small piece of the massive amount of initiatives, data, and other resources to come.  

I hope that this provides a meaningful way of integrating GIS into your environmental science program, starting slowly but powerfully, and building from there.  It also shows how GIS augments and enhances any environmental program by aligning to that program's needs. 

About the Author
I believe that spatial thinking can transform education and society through the application of Geographic Information Systems for instruction, research, administration, and policy. I hold 3 degrees in Geography, have served at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and USGS as a cartographer and geographer, and teach a variety of F2F (Face to Face) (including T3G) and online courses. I have authored a variety of books and textbooks about the environment, STEM, GIS, and education. These include "Interpreting Our World", "Essentials of the Environment", "Tribal GIS", "The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data", "International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS In Secondary Education", "Spatial Mathematics" and others. I write for 2 blogs, 2 monthly podcasts, and a variety of journals, and have created over 5,000 videos on the Our Earth YouTube channel. Yet, as time passes, the more I realize my own limitations and that this is a lifelong learning endeavor and thus I actively seek mentors and collaborators.