University of Vermont

College of Arts and Sciences

Mapping Worlds: Geographic Visualization and Spatial Thinking Across the Disciplines

Workshop participants learn how to use Social Explorer to map US Census data.

What would induce fifteen Arts and Sciences faculty to give up four precious days in August, shortly before the new academic year started, to sit indoors and learn new skills? The answer lies in one word: maps. Through the generous support of one of the Dean’s Interdisciplinary Experiential Engagement (IEE) awards, the interdisciplinary team of professors Beverley Wemple (a hydrologist in the Geography Department), Abby McGowan (a specialist on India in the History Department), and Meghan Cope (an urbanist in Geography), organized a four-day workshop to teach faculty from across the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) to use on-line mapping programs and introduce them to geographic information systems (GIS). The title of the workshop was Mapping Worlds: Geographic Visualization and Spatial Thinking Across the Disciplines, and participants came from Art History, Classics, Religion, Political Science, Economics, Sociology, Geography, English, History, and Romance Languages, as well as the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Libraries.

The workshop started with a round-the-circle sharing of each participant’s “fantasy map” – the map they wish they had or could make. While a few examples were indeed in the fantasy realm, many people were pleased to hear that their maps were entirely feasible using existing technology. The workshop hosted two guest speakers:  Dr. Diana Sinton of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS), whose work on spatial thinking across disciplines is internationally known, and Dr. Amy Hillier of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. Over the four days the participants learned from four outside trainers and two of the organizers about programs such as Google Earth, Tableau, Social Explorer, the mapping functions of Excel, Google Fusion Tables, and ArcGIS, and had a chance to try them out in the Geography Department’s GIS lab. Skills included geo-referencing historical maps, mapping U.S. census data, using symbols in maps, linking maps to other data visualizations, and incorporating a spatial perspective into the broad range of data used by participants. Student helpers – recent Geography graduates and current seniors – helped out each day with the technical side of things, but also provided an important connection for faculty to think about working with tech-savvy students to get closer to their fantasy maps. Brainstorming sessions and group discussions focused on how to use maps in the classroom, developing map-based student exercises for existing courses, and working with student assistants on research projects. Taking advantage of nice weather, the workshop participants did a walking tour of campus to visit various resources:  the Center for Teaching and Learning, Special Collections and the Map Library at Bailey/Howe, and the Spatial Analysis Lab in Aiken.

From the start, the organizers wanted not only to teach some basic mapping skills and share the amazing potential of newly emerging geo-visualization technologies to colleagues across CAS, but also to spark a new form of dialogue among participants, and, ultimately, create a vibrant cohort of like-minded faculty who would continue to communicate and support each other into the future. Thus, the Mapping Worlds workshop itself contained many informal opportunities to make connections, identify common areas of interest, and get to know each other.

Indeed, the Mapping Worlds workshop was just the beginning of several events and interactions. First, all participants are given the opportunity to sign up to be matched with one of the twenty sophomore Honors College students enrolled this fall in Beverley Wemple’s “Geospatial Technologies” course, and work with that student for the whole semester to develop research-based maps or a classroom exercise. Second, there will be follow-up trainings through CTL on additional skills and new software, as they become available. Third, several workshop participants, along with Meghan Cope, will be co-hosting a medical geographer, Dr. Elisabeth Root from the University of Colorado, on October 24/25 in connection with this year’s First-Year Read book, The Ghost Map. The workshop organizers have also arranged for the Faculty Honors Seminar in August 2014 to be on the theme “Spatial Thinking Across the Disciplines,” and Mapping Worlds participants will be sharing their experience and the products of their new skills to a broader cross-campus audience. Finally, there will be two co-taught courses in AY 2014-15 including combinations of participants, bringing further interdisciplinarity to CAS through the medium of the map.

For more information on any of the upcoming events, courses, or to get involved, please contact Meghan Cope, mcope@uvm.edu.

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