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A Critical Spin on GEOG265, 'Introduction to GIS'

I'm gearing up for next semester's Introduction to GIS, a course required of all Geography (and Social Studies Education) majors at Ball State University.  In this course, I attempt to provide learning opportunities such that students can learn the technical skills associated with geographic information technologies, while situating these technical practices, critically.

Course Description:
This course will serve as an introduction to the concepts, techniques, and histories that motivate geographic information systems.  This course will simultaneously expose students to key moments in the academic literature that gave rise to GIS in the discipline of geography while providing the necessary, introductory skills to operate ArcGIS.  GIS brings together traditional cartographic principles, computer-assisted analytical cartography, relational database design, and digital image processing and analysis to enable people to develop geospatial databases, analyze those databases, and use maps and other visual representations as part of this analysis. This course will help you develop conceptual and applied understandings of the following fundamental principles of GIS: the representation of spatial objects, spatial analysis and modeling techniques, spatial data types, sources, and structures, and principles of cartographic representation and communication.  The lectures, readings, laboratory and project activities are designed to provide you with a solid grounding in the disciplinary histories that enable GIS, concepts that underlie GIS, an understanding of how spatial analysis and representation are carried out with GIS, and experience using a desktop GIS software.

Learning Objectives:
In addition to building skills and competencies in technical literacy and numeracy, students will also develop skills in critical thinking and communication.  GIS, as a technology, did not simply appear out of thin air, and this course is structured so that technical skills are historically and socially situated.  Furthermore, while this course does emphasize the necessary skills to practice GIS, it also recognizes that the practice of GIS is not universal.  There are multiple ways in which these systems are developed and implemented.  As such, this course will expose students to this multiplicity, while giving them the necessary skills to be successful in more advanced courses in GIS development and implementation.  Students shall be able to:
  • Apply multiple thematic mapping techniques to represent geographic information, choosing an appropriate representation for your data set or project goal;
  • Apply principles of map design to create a map that is coherent and convincing, as well as technically correct;
  • Explain how spatial and attribute data are represented in a GIS, and understand the implications of these different data models;
  • Perform basic analytic operations in a GIS, including data query, buffer, overlay, and reclassification;
  • Create and implement simple cartographic models using a GIS software;
  • Critically analyze cartographic and GIS applications to assess some of their potential social and political implications.
Selected Readings:
  • Bolstad, Paul. 2008. GIS Fundamentals: A First Text on Geographic Information Systems. White Bear Lake, MN: Eider Press.
  • Chrisman, Nicholas R. 1999. What does 'GIS' mean? Transactions in GIS 3 (2):175-186.
  • Couclelis, Helen. 1992. People manipulate objects (but cultivate fields): Beyond the raster-vector debate in GIS. Lecture Notes in Computer Science 639:65-77.
  • Crampton, Jeremy W. 1994. Cartography's Defining Moment: The Peters Projection Controversy, 1974-1990. Cartographica 31 (4):16-32.
  • Crampton, Jeremy W. 1995. The Ethics of GIS. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems 22 (1):84-89.
  • Dobson, Jerome E. 1983. Automated Geography. The Professional Geographer 35 (2):135-143.
  • Goodchild, Michael F. 1987. A spatial analytical perspective on geographical information systems. International Journal of Geographical Information Systems 1 (4):327-334.
  • Nyerges, Timothy L. 1991. Analytical Map Use. Cartography and Geographic Information Systems 18 (1):11-22.
  • Openshaw, Stan. 1991. A view on the GIS crisis in geography, or, using GIS to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Environment and Planning A 23 (5):621-628.
  • Steinitz, Carl, Paul Parker, and Lawrie Jordan. 1976. Hand-Drawn Overlays: Their History and Prospective Uses. Landscape Architecture:444-455.
  • Schuurman, Nadine. 2005. Social Perspectives on Semantic Interoperability: Constraints on Geographical Knowledge from a Data Perspective. Cartographica 40 (4):47-61.
  • Taylor, Peter J. 1990. GKS. Political Geography Quarterly 9:211-212.
  • Tobler, Waldo R. 1959. Automation and Cartography. Geographical Review 49 (4):526-534. 
I've asked my current GEOG265 students to comment on this class, as a form of advice for the students enrolled in the course next semester.  You'll see their diverse comments/suggestions/meanderings below.


    1. This course can be cake if you stick with it and make sure to go to class. These principles may not be something you are used to dealing with or thinking about in everyday life, and the lectures are what ties it all together and makes it make sense. It may not be as interesting as some of your other classes, but you can make it fun if you put in the work in the beginning. Feel free to ask for help, he does a good job at making sure you dont feel stupid.

    2. Anyone taking this class in the futre needs to DO THE READINGS!!!! An alos, do not wait to do all of your book chapters until the last week before they are due. I was one of the pople who would not show up to the lab time on fridays to work on my stuff, and i feel like doing that may have helped me a lot. Take advantage of the in-class work days.

    3. 1. During the micro labs, still do the lab even when it doesn't ask for a 'print screen'. It's always these lessons that come into play later during a project, and you're going to have to know how to do it.

    4. Follow along with journal readings. Don't wait till the last minute to ask for help. Start project early enough to make time for distractions or disaster. SAVE YOUR WORK, the shared GEOID folder is the best bet.

    5. Study for the tests, believe me it helps. Also probably best if you print out the PPs before class, If Wilson went any faster ur heads would spin lol.

      Its a fun class, so if you actually participate you will like it.

    6. if you're taking this course, make sure that you attempt to understand the processes you're taking in the lab're going to need to demonstrate it all later on in the course! maybe take a side note or two as you go along. A good thing to do would be to print off the powerpoint slides before class not only to follow along but it will help you tremendously in preparation for the exams. (alot of questions are derived from them).

    7. Few helpful hints when taking this course:
      1. ask the professor for help. He is willing to help you with any problems you might/will have with the program.
      2. always save any work! (for example, make multiple copies of a lab or the project) that way you can continue to make changes to things without losing all of your work in case of a computer crashing.
      3. pay attention when reviewing. this will be extremely helpful when trying to study for the test. Do Not think that just because it is a review day that you can skip it.
      4. have fun! It's actually a very enjoyable class!

    8. For students taking this class, it is really not a difficult class, the material can be confusing, but Dr. Wilson is very helpful and clear on any questions you might have. Make sure when going through the exercises in the book to go through each step and not skip over them, if you have a question just ask, because it will come in handy later whether you believe it will or not.

    9. For students taking this class next semester, here are my words of wisdom:

      -If you've had a traumatizing experience with GIS (which I did) fear not. You can overcome this because Dr. Wilson is super helpful.

      -USE THE STUDY GUIDES. They make the test a breeze.

      -Go into GIS with an open mind. Even if it seems like GIS is completely useless for your major, you'll be surprised how grassroots GIS can bring out your desire to help better your community. It's an awesome feeling.

      Above all: have fun, work hard and trust Captain Safety (Dr. Wilson)!

      -Noel Sucese

    10. It would be a good idea to initiate your final project topic early to allow as much time as possible in finding data for that project. Finding the data you need can be more time consuming than you might think.

    11. One piece of advice:
      Work carefully on your Mico Labs, and save often. Then make sure to bring the data off the servers so you can manipulate it. It sucks when you get so far and it won't let you alter it at the end. Also, ask questions when you don't understand something. He's very helpful.

    12. Geography 265 with Dr. Wilson is an enjoyable class. I recommend attending class and completing the MicroLab ahead of time. Make sure to attend study sessions and do all work he assigns. This class is very enjoyable provided you do all of the following.

    13. If you are taking this course next semester, I would advise students to stay on track when completing the Micro Labs. If you get behind on these, it is very tedious to try to finish the entire project in one night. It is also important to remember what the micro labs are teaching you. The questions within the labs might just show up again when it comes exam time. It is also vital to recall the processes covered in the micro labs because it will help you complete the comprehensive lab and the final project. Overall, it is an enjoyable class and Dr. Wilson makes it fun and easy to learn GIS.

    14. Dear Future Students,

      This class with Dr. Wilson can be as easy as you are willing to make it. My advice to you is to show up to class everyday, and if you do that you will not be disapointed with your class grade. Turn in all assignments on time and to the best of your ability. Don't blow off either of the exams and you will be GOLDEN turst me!

      Molly Elkins

    15. If you are patient and good with computers, then my advice to you would be to just do all of your work and attend class & you should do just fine.

      However, if you suck with computers and are not entirely patient, then I suppose my best advice would be to attend all classes, do all your work, and feel free to swear at all of the f**king computers because they really do suck and are not the best for anything... like "schwartzenager toilet paper, they don't take sh*!*t off of nothing" (a quote from a bathroom stall in Bracken Library, Fall 2009)

      In terms of using the datasources (as you may have to) keep in mind that the EinsteinData thing has some very misleading labelling, so keep an open mind to looking for whatever it may be. This class is exceptionally easy in terms of learning, but staying on top of workloads is the catch. Personally, I am not an honors student, and if I can get a B grade than I am happy. I almost got an A without a sweat, so if you work hard, this class would be an easy GPA help. And if you actually fail this class, than you do not belong in college and need to rethink your life.

      Good Luck with GIS & remember that swearing at sh*!*tty software is a good way to develope patience to get through class, plus its not like the software has feelings to be hurt either.


    16. Hi there future GIS 265 students,

      You should be pleased that you have chosen to take this class from Prof. Wilson. Not only will you learn the basic technical aspects of GIS, but Prof. Wilson will also introduce you to aspects of the field of critical studies in GIS. This is a TWO FOR ONE deal for your hard-earned tuition money! As far as I know, this is not the conventional approach in introductory courses on this topic, so it is rewarding to consider carefully what is going on in the class.

      The critical readings (see above "selected readings") assigned are challenging and might easily scare you away, but DON'T BE SCARED. Some of the readings are a little dry, but the class does not require you to understand every point or have to regurgitate all the arguments. Class discussions on these readings mostly involve just the general points. Just figure out the general idea of the readings and don't get lost in a careful reading. There might even be a "take home message" that you can get out of some of these studies whether you are going to be part of the geography field or not, something not always adequately addressed in undergraduate courses: ETHICS!

      Prof. Wilson is more than fair with the assignments and the exams. You will do fine on the test if you study and ask questions.

      have fun,

    17. This course can be challenging, because of all the new information you learn. However, Professor Wilson goes at a nice pace so that everyone can adjust. When doing the coprehensive labs pay attention, the information is critical for the final project.

    18. Future GIS students, this class is not at as bad as you think when first looking at the course description. You are lucky to have professor Wilson as a teacher. He is very fair and understanding of each students handicaps in GIS. Make sure though you do no get caught behind in the projects. This is crucial because not only will you be behind, but you will be lost in what to do. Just do your work and you are sure to pass this class. Have fun with GIS!!!

      A. Pieri

    19. Micro labs are confusing some times but fight your way through it. Take an extra hour or two a week to keep on top of them. It helps out in the end. Learn how to Geocode and use address locator before the final project starts.

      Enjoy it!!!

    20. Mornin,

      In Geography 265 we learned the basics of how to gather data, organize it, create a visual representation of that data, then anaylize and interpret the results. It is a very interesting class if you follow along.
      Advice I would give would be to pay attention and pick something interesting to do your project on. As long as you do your homework and listen in class, this class is pretty laid back and wont cause you too much trouble. As for the project, as long as it is something you find interesting I doubt you will have much trouble getting it done. I thought the software was fun to mess around with and turning your data into a visual map is pretty cool. So is Mr. Wilson.

      Quintin G

    21. Do not procrastinate on assignments. Work hard on your final project because it is worth your time to do well on it. Pick a topic you are a interested in for the final project.

    22. In Geography 265 be prepared to learn all about GIS and how to apply yourself in this program. The exams will test you in what you know about both GIS and the readings that are required for this class. Make sure to study the studyguides thoroughly for the exams and actually do the readings.
      The final project in this class will let you see just how much you have learned over the semester and will further your knowledge in GIS.
      Prof. Wilson is really down to earth and will help you with whatever you need.
      Good Luck,
      Nick H.

    23. Really pay attention to the steps when going through the Arc GIS book and the Micro Labs. Focus especially on the geocoding chapter, which I believe is Chapte 17. Dr. Wilson is very helpful with any questions pertaining to the labs.

      If you pay attention in class and listen to Dr. Wilson's lectures you will be well prepared for the exams. I strongly recommend this class

    24. Future GIS Students - At first this class might seem overwhelming, but once you get the hang of the basics, it is not that bad. Prof. Wilson is very helpful and knowledgable in the area, so don't hesitate to ask for help. To me, the most difficult part of the class is getting to learn the software. The lab assignments give step by step instructions, but recalling these steps from memory is difficult. So make sure you take your time learning the steps, because you will definitely have to use them more than once. Good luck, Connor D

    25. Hello Future GIS Students,

      My advice for incoming students that are taking GIS is to not feel overwhelmed on the the first day. It will feel that way, but just stop and take a breather because down the stretch it will not be that bad. Dr. Wilson is fair and forgiving thus you have nothing to fear. You will have ample time to finish assignments and reading and the final project is a cake walk if you pace yourself adequately and have good cohesion with you partner. Good luck!!!

    26. Future GIS 265 Students,

      This class is one of the best Geography classes you can take here at Ball State. You will spend time in both lecture and lab where you will actually be able to work hands on with the software you are learning about. The class is not difficult as long as you go to both lecture and lab and pay attention. When you are first starting the software, keep up with the deadlines on the syllabus so that you will not have to complete the entire microlab last minute.

      Professor Wilson is very willing to answer any questions you have, so don't hesitate to ask for clarification.

      Adam F

    27. Hey Future GIS amigos,

      This is a really interesting class and it's as fun as you're willing to make it. If you put the time in you can learn a lot of interesting things, and learn to operate GIS which is a pretty legit system. First of all, the readings may look unimportant and boring, but if you take the time you'll learn a lot from them, although they don't get a whole lot easier to read. Make sure you read them though, because once Wilson explains you'll start thinking it makes a whole lot more sense. If you don't read you'll be just as confused at his explanations.

      Do the labs from the book, you'll learn a lot from them, and if you don't, you'll be able to see the people that were lost later in the semester.

      Mike W.

    28. Geography 265 with Dr. Wilson is an enjoyable class that can help you learn basic skills of GIS and have a general understanding of how it works. My advice is keep up with all the work that is assigned whether readings or microlabs. If you fall behind, the work will pile up on you really quickly. Stay on task, and you will receive the grade that you want for this course.

    29. My advice for this class:

      - Pay attention to what you are doing in labs when working with the GIS software!!! A mistake I made was just flying through the exercises in the book and assuming I knew what I was doing but this just led to needing a lot of help completing my own assignments. Take notes on how you do certain processes and this will help you tremendously!
      - Print out the powerpoints! Use them for studying for exams! Most of the questions come directly from the powerpoints and answering them with the same information he gives will get you A' me!
      - Do NOT be afraid to ask Dr. Wilson for help with assignments!! He is more than willing to help and helped me a lot when completing my work.
      - Don't let the software overwhelm you. If you stop and think about what you are trying to do it is usually pretty simple.

      Good Luck!!

    30. Dont wait till the last minute to do the micro labs, also go through the whole exercise even if you dont have to do a screne shot. When it come to your final project, do make it to complicated and try to use the information you use in the comprehensive lab, it will save you alot of time.

    31. Future GIS Students,

      If you are taking this class next semester, I have two pieces of advice for you. First, pay close attention to the textbook exercises as you will be using the skills you acquire later in the comprehensive lab and final project. Secondly, be sure to attend the lab class periods. You will fall behind very quickly if you don't because a good bulk of the course work is completed during the lab classes. Good luck, and enjoy the class!

    32. dont opps, not do make it too complicated

    33. I admit that I did not pay as mucha attention in class as I should have and I do regret this. My problem with the class was that I simply could not see how I would be able to apply the knowledge I gathered without buying ArcGIS, which I currently have no incination to. If there is anything I would suggest it is how to include relevance to SS teaching majors into your lectures. Your enthusiasm and knowledge are dead on, but how the class related to teaching geography escaped me.



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