For a long time, we were interested in student opportunities to use programming languages integrated with GIS applications, learning these tools in a way that was relevant to their interests in the GIS field. The goal was to bring those things together in a single class.
University of Vermont Students Gain Competitive Skills, Combining GIS and R Programming Language
• The University of Vermont (UVM) strengthens student skills in a new course combining geographic information system (GIS) technology and the statistical programming language R with R-ArcGIS Bridge.
• UVM faculty discovered that there is a demand for skills in R, ArcGIS, and spatial analysis in the job market.
• As a final project, UVM students use ArcGIS StoryMaps to communicate their research findings and methodology.
The University of Vermont (UVM), a Public Ivy and top 100 research university, is a leader in the use of geospatial technologies and research. UVM's early adoption of geographic information system (GIS) technology has provided students with opportunities to build strong geospatial skill sets and explore technological solutions to global challenges.
As a holder of one of Esri's first 100 site licenses, UVM takes a modern approach to its GIS implementation. The organization utilizes the enterprise login system, single sign-on (SSO), to access Esri technology and meet the growing needs of students and researchers.
UVM is also a leader in interdisciplinary research and learning. For the first time in January 2020, the UVM's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources offered a course that bridged the gap between GIS technology and computational programming—subjects previously taught in silos. The hybrid course, titled Geospatial Computation, became a requirement for the Geospatial Technologies (GST) minor and is also included in the Geographic Information Systems and Data Communication Professional Certificate program.
Finding the Competitive Edge
This shift started when Dr. Gillian Galford, research associate professor and director for the GST minor and GIS Certificate program at UVM, realized that students were learning spatial analysis and programming in separate courses. For programs focused on GIS, students might skip courses on programming languages, limiting their research capabilities and future job qualifications. Galford also saw the missed opportunity in having courses that taught programming without integrating the powerful spatial analysis in GIS.
"If you're interested in GIS or remote sensing and want to be competitive in the job market, you certainly need some programming skills," Galford said.
As the UVM GIS program enrollment grew, Galford recognized the need to ensure the UVM programs were preparing students for their future job search. Galford and the UVM faculty looked at trends from the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics that rated GIS as an emerging field with rapid growth. Another indicator came from recent GIS-related job postings, where the UVM faculty discovered commonalities among the qualifications. This included skills or experience in R, Python, ArcGIS, and geospatial analysis.
The combined research showed a large demand for GIS-related and computer programming skills in the workplace. To help students, the university determined it would need to invest in more geostatistical courses and incorporate spatial data science into its program.
"For a long time, we were interested in student opportunities to use programming languages integrated with GIS applications, learning these tools in a way that was relevant to their interests in the GIS field," Galford said. "The goal was to bring those things together in a single class."
Implementing a Two-in-One-Course
Galford connected with Dr. Dawn Wright, Esri's chief scientist, and Dr. Orhun Aydin, senior product engineer and senior researcher with the Esri spatial stats team. With the help of Esri's software and the R-ArcGIS Bridge team, Galford took on the challenge of planning the course.
Aydin worked with course designers from UVM to create a streamlined process of teaching technology alongside theory. Implementing R-ArcGIS Bridge and the Geospatial Computation course design took about two and a half months to complete.
R-ArcGIS Bridge allowed students to build sophisticated analytics by combining the statistical capabilities of the R language with the spatial science of ArcGIS. Students extended R models with access to data, spatial algorithms, and more from the ecosystem of ArcGIS.
"The integration of R and ArcGIS Pro is hard, especially if you don't know that R-ArcGIS Bridge exists, so students feel like they have to pick one," Aydin said. "But R-ArcGIS Bridge shows them that these are two pieces of technology that can complement each other to solve sophisticated problems."
Every module of the course begins with an overarching problem that students aim to solve through different spatial statistical methods. Methods include ways to summarize, predict, and find patterns in data. Aydin broke up the lessons by methods so students can produce deliverables showing their understanding of concepts and applications.
There are both credit and noncredit options for enrolling in the Geospatial Computation course, which is an eight-week, three-credit hour course, with the only requirement to have experience in ArcGIS Pro. Students range from degree students in the undergraduate and graduate programs to applied and working professionals in the GIS certificate program. The course is taught asynchronously, giving students flexibility in their schedule—a feature that is especially beneficial for students who also work or are enrolled in other courses that require a lot of mobile work.
Building Marketable Skills
Learning to use R-ArcGIS Bridge also creates opportunities for students to leverage other components of ArcGIS Pro, such as ArcGIS StoryMaps. For the course's final project, students choose a research question to explore and make a map to tell a visual story of their spatial analysis work.
"We are doing science for our people, for our communities, and a big part of that is communication," Aydin said. "We need to be able to distill our ideas to their core to communicate our science with the broader public—because that's what makes the most impact."
Maya Fein-Cole, a master's student at the UVM who majored in Environmental Science and minored in Geospatial Technologies, took the Geospatial Computation course and did her final project on gun violence in America. She looked at gun violence spatially and temporally to see if there were any trends in population or levels of gun restrictions.
"There are specific Python classes, there are specific R classes, and there are specific GIS classes, but this was the first class I've taken that taught you how to use all these different tools together," Fein-Cole said. "That was why it was a really cool opportunity."
Fein-Cole used ArcGIS tools to identify hot spots and clustering. She applied different modeling and visualizations, such as the space-time cube, and learned about the regression toolbox both in ArcGIS and in R. Fein-Cole said the most valuable skill she gained was learning about R-ArcGIS Bridge—how it works and how to move data between the two platforms. She was excited about the power of combining the ability to code with the services that ArcGIS Pro offers.
Using ArcGIS StoryMaps to showcase the student's skills in GIS and programming also proves useful for portfolio work to make their skills more marketable.
"Combining GIS with R programming is definitely something that not a lot of people know how to do," Fein-Cole said. "It's a helpful skill to have as I'm applying for jobs. I think it's really important that people that are in the environmental field and that are into GIS are able to code in some capacity, and R is so useful for a lot of different things."
The Value in Adapting
Education programs are constantly changing as universities actively search for what will set their students up for success. Incorporating modern technology is crucial and requires universities to look at how courses they're teaching intersect with other disciplines.
Galford recommends universities continue to think: "What are the fundamentals? And what are we doing to help our students become competitive in the workforce?" The design of UVM's courses comes from this line of thinking—emphasize how students are going to tackle a problem, address it through the entire workflow, and use these skills to change the world after graduating.
After a successful first year, UVM's GIS Certificate program is looking to continue to add classes, reach more people, and always watch for new opportunities. Galford and Aydin both encourage students and educators to keep up with Esri technology, reach out to Esri's education team, and continue going through tutorials.
"Most GIS jobs require workflow automation; you need some type of computer language programming experience," Galford said. "It's a great opportunity for all our students to come out of their program and already have those qualifications."