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Developing a Model, Multipath Curriculum for GIScience

Dr. Duane F. Marble, Center for Mapping, Columbus, Ohio

Many academic institutions provide various forms of education and training in the traditional mapping sciences (geodesy, surveying, etc.), geographic information system technology, and spatial analysis (geography, operations research, statistics, etc.). We now call the growing synthesis of the critical portions of these three major areas geographic information science (GIScience). Modern GIScience is also heavily dependent on computational geography, and many distinctive spatial-temporal problems in data structures, data management, and algorithmic operations are encountered. Thus, computer science has become a crucial partner in GIScience.

We are applying GIScience to many problems that involve significant spatial-temporal components. Finding an effective solution to these problems requires the assistance of skilled professionals who have an effective grasp of how to use existing GIScience knowledge and technology and how to formulate solutions through effective system design approaches. Understanding how individuals and organizations visualize spatial-temporal systems represents an important component of GIScience since system effectiveness is augmented when their results are easily understandable by users.

Existing GIS education generally fails to provide the background in GIScience that is necessary to meet the needs either of the users of GIScience technology or of the scientific community engaged in basic GIScience research and development. We see a lack of breadth with only a very limited view of GIScience being presented. In other programs, there is a lack of depth with students introduced only to the operational aspects of existing software systems. In far too many cases, the problem is one of both breadth and depth.

The national impact of inadequate GIS education is substantial and growing. We fail to realize the full benefits of GIScience technology since some segments of the user community are unaware of what the existing technology can accomplish. In addition, the development of the technology is being delayed due to an acute lack of appropriately educated development staff. Critical basic and applied research activities are also being restricted because of a lack of knowledge of GIScience capabilities and of computational geography by many new researchers. We must give a high priority to finding solutions to these problems. Today, many professionals are now convinced that this can be achieved only through a substantial revision in our approach to GIScience education.

Toward a Solution: The Model GIScience Curriculum

One problem faced by all academic institutions dealing with GIScience education is that of defining and evaluating the scope of present or proposed instructional programs. This is difficult since no defined curriculum exists to be used as a reference for such comparisons or to suggest potential local development paths. Our experience shows that such a curriculum must consist of several different but interrelated "paths," each leading to a different outcome for the student1. Some institutions may provide only one path, while others may provide several. For example, following are possible scenarios that an institution might face:

  • A geography student is interested in a career involving the application of spatial analysis to the location and operation of Business enterprises. GIScience provides the major tools available to support this activity. What education and training does the student need to complete?
  • A computer science student desires a career involving software development and has developed a strong interest in GIScience. How can he or she acquire the necessary education to work as a productive member of a team creating GIScience applications?
  • A graduate student in archaeology (or any other disciplinary area) plans to undertake research that will require the practical application of GIScience concepts and techniques. What level of education in GIScience will permit the student to (a) attain his or her immediate objectives, and (b) provide a basis for further education?

Each scenario represents a legitimate demand on GIScience education, and clearly there will be significant content overlap. One solution is to let each interest area teach whatever they believe is necessary. This common approach produces unbalanced results and is inefficient with respect to the use of limited institutional resources.

What we need is a well-thought-out model curriculum that defines the specific GIScience courses required for the successful traversal of each path and the relevant general education context for these courses. This will provide substantial assistance in identifying those paths and courses that will be most effectively set up at a specific institution. As for future employers, the existence of such a model will also aid in evaluation of the educational background of the graduates.

Similar curricula have evolved in the fields of computer science and information technology under the sponsorship of the Association for Computing Machinery and the IEEE Computer Society. The existence of these will permit coordination of the GIScience activity and provide a valuable methodological prototype2.

The UCGIS Initiative

UCGIS logoFollowing action by the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) Education Committee and its Assembly, a working group has been established to develop a model, multipath curriculum for GIScience. This curriculum will specify several paths corresponding to those required by students involved with GIScience at various levels and will identify the courses to be associated with each path.

The working group is composed of academics from several institutions and industry representatives. The development of the model curriculum is taking place in phases, and at critical points in the process they will make draft results available for general comment through the UCGIS Web site (www.ucgis.org). We anticipate that final results from the working group will be available in about 30 months.

Initial Phase: Structural Definitions--A draft structure for the overall model curriculum and a description of the different paths will be created. A public review of the materials developed will be undertaken before final modifications are made to the structural definition.

Second Phase: A Draft Curriculum--Courses determined to be necessary for each path will be defined by reverse engineering of path outcomes. Modules from the various paths will be integrated into a common series of articulated courses that form the heart of the model curriculum. Opportunities for public comment on both the original path modules and the integrated, common modules and their assignment to the paths will be provided.

Final Phase: The Completed Model Curriculum--Following comprehensive public review and comment on the draft, the working group will create a final version of the model curriculum. Distribution will take place in both electronic and printed form. As a matter of policy, provision will be made for regular review and revision of the document.

Implementation Considerations

Before the model GIScience curriculum can be implemented, several operational questions must be addressed such as (a) where are the faculty to teach such a program to come from? (b) how will the necessary laboratory and other resources be made available? and (c) how will the existing population of GIS professionals make the transition to the broader and more complex world of GIScience? The development of answers to these questions will require the dedicated efforts of academia, government, and industry.

For more information, contact Dr. Duane F. Marble, Center for Mapping, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio 43212 (E-mail: marble.1@osu.edu).


1  See the discussion in Duane F. Marble, "Rebuilding the Top of the Pyramid" in the Spring 1998 issue of ArcNews.

2  See, for example, ACM Curricula Recommendations Volume I: Computing Curricula 1991: Report of the ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Curriculum Task Force (out of print but available at: www.acm.org/education/curr91/homepage.html) and IS'97: Model Curriculum and Guidelines for Undergraduate Degree Programs in Information Systems (available in both hard copy from ACM and at www.acm.org/education/curricula.html#CRVI).


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