A New Kind of Mapping

It is a Monday morning, and the 20 students in professor Jack Loveless’s Mapping Our World: Introduction to Geographic Information Systems course are clustered in small groups around computers and laptops in a laboratory at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. The din of conversation is loud as students set about producing data-driven interactive maps for their various GIS projects.

A New Kind of Mapping
Students are creating a story map of the prominent trees on the beautiful, leafy campus of Smith College in Massachusetts.

“GIS is the software that really enables you to analyze [spatial] relationships,” says Loveless, an associate professor of geosciences.

Cara Dietz, class of 2019, and Audrey Ring and Zoe Zandbergen, class of 2018, are creating a web-based, interactive story map of some 90 prominent trees on campus using ArcGIS software. In the process, they have wrestled with organizing and consolidating an assortment of Word documents and MP3 and Excel files while building on TreeSpeak, a horticulture class project in which students identified campus trees and recorded short segments about the trees. These audio files are currently accessible by the QR Code posted at each tree.

A New Kind of Mapping
Associate professor Jack Loveless teaches a class called Mapping Our World: Introduction to Geographic Information Systems.

By semester’s end, the three students hope to have a new interactive, web-based map that brings to life the shape of the campus landscape in which the trees thrive and provides additional information about each tree through new datasets such as photographs and text. Once completed, the map will be available on the Smith Botanic Garden of the Smith College website. Watch a video interview with the students to learn more about their tree mapping project.

A New Kind of Mapping
A group of Smith College students work on their tree mapping project.

The tree project is one of six projects for which students are generating data-driven maps this semester. Among the others, Loveless says, are two projects associated with Smith College’s Dining Services and the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design and Sustainability. In one, students are exploring where Smith’s food suppliers come from; in the other, students are mapping where food waste goes and showing how Smith College can potentially enhance composting across campus. Another project is evaluating the efficacy of the college’s efforts to manage invasive plant species on campus. For each project, students are working directly with community partners.

A New Kind of Mapping
The students add data points to their map.

Two student groups are also working with the Kestrel Land Trust, of Amherst, to develop maps and identify the best places to install new trail signs along the Mount Tom and Mount Holyoke ranges in Massachusetts; another group is partnering with Mass Audubon to create interactive story maps of stone walls for one of the organization’s properties in Williamsburg, Massachusetts.

“This is my sixth year teaching this class,” Loveless says, “but this is only the third time that I’ve taught it with community partner-based final projects. From the very first time through, it was a big experiment. I didn’t know if it was going to work out well or not, but witnessing the students carrying out these projects and just seeing how engaged they were in doing this original work was really, really inspiring.”

This article originally appeared on Smith College’s Grécourt Gate news site. It is reprinted here with permission.