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Developing a GIS Curriculum
By Ann B. Johnson, Esri Higher Education Solutions Manager

UCGIS Model Curricula Body of Knowledge 2006

Academic research has driven both the development and use of GIS and related geospatial technologies in many workforce domains. Courses and programs at universities in geographic

click to enlarge
Relationship between experience, domain knowledge, and types of GIS users
information science and technology (GI S&T) have increased rapidly as the demand from industry has grown.

The National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) Core Curriculum was one of the many efforts to help educators develop GI S&T programs. The University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) Model Curricula Project and the Body of Knowledge (BoK) are ongoing efforts to assist educators who are developing curriculum for GI S&T programs.

Although this is its first edition, BoK can help build GI S&T curricula and serve as a basis for future editions as the domain continues to be defined. It is proving valuable to the geospatial industry and related organizations for purposes not strictly related to curriculum development.

GI S&T Curriculum

Academic programs within the United States that focus on GIS increased from a handful of institutions doing research at the graduate level in the 1980s to hundreds of institutions that offer courses, certificates, and degree programs incorporating the use of GI S&T. There have been many efforts by academia, professional organizations, and industry in the United States to develop methods to define the content of programs related to GI S&T. Early efforts included NCGIA Core Curriculum.

NCGIA Core Curriculum

The NCGIA Core Curriculum grant, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), created a set of units for three courses. While this has been called the Core Curriculum, the units more closely resemble a set of lecture notes. First distributed in 1990, Core Curriculum has since been translated into many languages and continues to be used by educators. Later efforts to update and expand the curriculum have been less successful according to Karen Kemp, founder and former director of the International Masters Program in GIS at the University of Redlands, California. The latest version is available from

Another effort to develop more technology-related curricula was the NCGIA Core Curriculum for Technical Programs, which was also funded by the NSF. This effort helped spread the technology into lower division programs, but it has not been maintained or updated since 1999.

Increasing Interest in GI S&T

Expanding use of GI S&T has led to several efforts by United States government agencies such as the $700,000 grant by the Department of Labor to the Geospatial Information and Technology Association (GITA), to study workforce readiness for jobs in the geospatial sector. The University of Southern Mississippi, University of Mississippi, and other two-year schools and universities have adopted DACUM (Developing a Curriculum) processes for identifying the duties and tasks for GIS professionals. Organizations that deal with the geospatial industry—such as the Association of American Geographers (AAG), the URISA, GITA, the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing, and recently the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF)—have been active in supporting development of the curricula, supporting materials and courses, and activities that help define geospatial workforce skills and competencies. Detailed discussions of these efforts are beyond the scope of this article but are summarized in the UCGIS GI S&T Draft Body of Knowledge 2006 online at the UCGIS Web site and included in a soon-to-be-published BoK by the AAG.

UCGIS and Model Curricula Body of Knowledge

UCGIS was founded in 1994 to promote GIScience. In 1997, UCGIS proposed a number of challenges including one that led to the Model Curricula project led by professor Duane Marble. Marble based this effort on the highly successful Computer Science and Information Systems curriculum format. This approach focused on undergraduate curriculum development and encompassed the subdomains of GIScience, GIS (geospatial) technologies, and applications of science and technology.

Many meetings with advisors from academia and industry and funding support from vendors led to the publication of the Strawman Report in 2003. The Strawman Report included a Body of Knowledge for GI S&T, divided into 12 Knowledge Areas (KA), which were subdivided into units, then into topics. The Model Curricula was not to be a static document of set course content and structure but would allow the inclusion of a common set of core topics; additional appropriate topics from the 12 KAs; supporting topics/courses from other disciplines; and integrative experiences, such as internships, to create a curriculum pathway appropriate to a specific curriculum outcome. Thus, by specifying different topics and other additional supporting courses, the same BoK could be drawn upon to support the creation of very different curriculum outcomes. This multipath approach was seen as necessary due to the multidisciplinary nature of GI S&T. Lack of funding support from the NSF slowed the progress on the Model Curricula project.

New Plan for the Model Curricula Project

In 2004, the UCGIS, under the leadership of David DiBiase, proposed a new three-year plan. Due to the increased interest in GI S&T, an accelerated one-year plan was requested by industry. A revised work plan that focused on the content within the BoK KAs was outlined. This new accelerated plan necessitated postponing inclusion of some original elements including specific (i.e., exemplar) pathways, suggestions for supporting elements from other disciplines, mastery levels for topics, discussion of cross-cutting themes, and pedagogy and implementation issues.

The BoK underwent extensive reviews by an advisory board of scholars and experts. Comments and recommendations were reviewed and incorporated as needed into the document and a final document prepared in February 2006. During the BoK development and review process, the scope was expanded to include graduate and post-baccalaureate/ professional degree curricula KAs, units, and topics and combine or reorganize units within 10 rather than the original 12 KAs.

Structure and Format for the Body of Knowledge

The 10 BoK KAs encompass the domain of GI S&T. Each KA is made up of units that focus on the concepts, methodologies, techniques, and applications specific to that KA. Each unit includes a

Knowledge Area—two letter code (KA) and description

Unit—Number and title with a brief description (references as applicable)

Topic—Unit number and individual number and descriptive title
  • At least one educational objective
  • Key Readings—References to materials for the KA
Figure 1: KA structure
title and brief description that helps users understand how it relates to the KA and, where applicable, includes references to other relevant KAs. Core units have been identified and represent units that should be covered at some mastery level in certificate or degree programs. Units are made up of topics that include a short descriptive title and bulleted educational objectives. An attempt was made to include examples of educational objectives with varying levels of mastery for each topic. More than 350 learning objectives in 79 units are included in 10 KAs. The basic structure of a KA is shown in Figure 1.

Current and Future Use of UCGIS BoK

AAG will publish the BoK document in summer 2006 as low-cost printed and electronic versions. This will be the first edition in a continuing effort to define the GI S&T domain. Work on a second edition should be started as soon as possible with other supporting materials created including exemplar pathways. It has been suggested that relationships between KAs may be further identified by using new information visualization techniques, which may suggest relationships and overlaps between KAs.

Additional Uses of the BoK

Although the Model Curricula was originally conceived as a tool primarily for academics who are creating curricula, the BoK can serve many purposes. In addition to initial curriculum development, the BoK is useful in curriculum review, program evaluation and assessment, accreditation, articulation, professional certification, employee screening, and program comparison by students. Interest in the document has also come from educators in Europe and Asia Pacific.

Possible future efforts could include development of a tool for program self-assessment based on the BoK KA, units, topics, and educational objectives. The Strawman version of the Model Curricula has been used as a course evaluation tool for the GIS Certification Institute's GIS Professional Certification process, and BoK will be used in an update process. BoK has also served as a tool for the USGIF Academy accreditation program. The USGIF used the GI S&T BoK to identify what content should be included in accredited geospatial intelligence analyst programs.


With continuing expansion of geospatial technology use and increased ability of institutions to collaborate worldwide to create GI S&T modules and programs, the BoK should provide a common format and structure for sharing content and comparing programs. While the BoK was developed to satisfy the needs of educators in the United States, it may serve as a starting point for other national and regional geospatial curricula efforts. It will also serve as the basis for creating exemplary pathways that can be used to define discipline-specific geospatial and nongeospatial courses for many different workforce domains and educational disciplines. Continued participation and interest from government, professional organizations, and industries in defining the geospatial industry will also benefit from, and help build, new editions of the BoK and ancillary tools and materials. With ongoing review and input from all parties interested in GI S&T, the BoK should continue to be an excellent resource for educators and geospatial technology users. For more information, visit the Web pages listed in the table on page 9.

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