GIS and Spatial Literacy Research – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

GIS and Spatial Literacy Research

Funded by a Mellon Presidential Discretionary Grant, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Kristen Brubaker and Assistant Professor of Economics Christina Houseworth are piloting a new learning module in Houseworth’s statistics course this fall, with plans to expand outside the economics department in the coming years.

Their project, “Teaching Geographic Information Systems and Spatial Literacy in the Social Sciences,” is designed to integrate Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and spatial thinking into social science disciplines like economics, sociology, American studies, and public policy.

Many students in environmental studies and the natural sciences are already learning GIS skills, but Brubaker and Houseworth say that these cutting edge spatial techniques for data analysis have significant value in social sciences as well. By using GIS, theories of social science courses are translated through tangible, practical data and students can see the concepts in action.  

Brubaker and Houseworth have created modules of different lengths, as well as training materials, so that professors can efficiently integrate spatial thinking and GIS into their courses. Modules are designed to last between one and three weeks, to fit a variety of course needs, and will include datasets, activities, assignments, and instructions for the professor, as well as current examples of research questions that can be answered or explored using GIS.

“We hope to aid in providing a more effective way of teaching a wide range of topics,” Brubaker says.

The modules can be useful in courses such as statistics, econometrics, political economy, environmental policy, social policy and community activism, research methods, and sustainable community development methods.

Brubaker’s background in forestry and natural sciences brings familiarity with GIS, while Houseworth’s background in quantitative economics will help target the module toward the curricular concerns and standards of the social sciences. The integration of these techniques and disciplines will allow faculty and students to probe the extent to which spatial measures bear on important issues such as earnings inequality, differences in educational performance, and individual levels of health.

“Our goals are twofold,” Brubaker says. “We would like to be able to enhance learning by giving the students an additional tool to help them understand and work with data.”

GIS is a skillset that is prized by employers and graduate student advisers in the social sciences. If students gain more experience and exposure to spatial thinking and GIS in their regular curriculum, they may be at an advantage as they enter the workforce.

“Data management and manipulation is a major part of the future of learning and teaching,” Houseworth says. “Students who can think visually about data and create visual representations of important topics/problems will succeed in a wide range of life activities; including work and being productive members of society.”

“Furthermore, we want to emphasize to students that place matters, and social issues are often impacted by where we live,” Brubaker says.

The first module is being used in Houseworth’s ECON 202 course this fall, and she and Brubaker hope to encourage other courses to utilize the modules as well. They will present their results to the faculty in the spring.