Vol. 4, No. 1 - October 27, 2004

New GIS Center Fosters Interdisciplinary Study

The new Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Center for Interdisciplinary Research, incorporating technology that enables students to "see" any geographic place from a variety of perspectives, officially opens on GIS Day, Wednesday, Nov. 17. The center promises to become an important teaching tool for several different courses, including ID 210, "Introduction to GIS," an interdisciplinary course launched this fall.

International GIS Day is a grassroots event co-sponsored by the National Geographic Society to showcase real-world applications of the technology. At Skidmore, the new GIS Center will be open from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Nov. 17, and visitors will be able to see demonstrations of the College's GIS tools. Refreshments will be served at 4 p.m.

A $100,000 grant from the George I. Alden Trust funded the development of the center, located in Dana Hall Atrium, room 169. The center contains eight workstations, a printer, a plotter and a server, along with the appropriate software to support effective applications of GIS across a number of disciplines. According to Robert DeSieno, professor of computer science, "GIS is extremely practical and can be used in any discipline that needs to map information on a surface." He envisions the center assisting students involved in specific courses, as well as students and faculty working on collaborative research projects.

GIS facilitates the creation of multiple layers of images using selected data for a specific geographic location. For example, if the class project calls for students to analyze how voting patterns in Saratoga Springs are affected by such variables as family income, population density, and voting district location, a city map can be drawn, and new maps could be generated for each variable. When the maps are layered on top of each other on a computer monitor, the image that emerges incorporates all the data sets, creating an image that allows viewers to see how the data sets affect each other.

Robert Jones, associate professor of economics, is teaching the new introductory GIS course, which he calls "a lot of fun" both for him and his students. His class of 20 is spending this fall exploring GIS theory and issues, and learning in depth the methodology and applications of this exciting new technology. To help them become more knowledgeable of the cartographic concepts, techniques, and notions of spatially displaying information and with methods for discovering patterns within those displays, Jones has developed a set of exercises. He has focused on such topics as the location of affordable housing, high- and low-income areas, relationships between congressional districts and race (to determine the impact of gerrymandering), and environmentally hazardous sites in relation to streams, housing, and geological properties of the land on which they are built. Explained Jones, "GIS is a tool for viewing particular aspects of a geographic place and relating one kind of information about that place to other kinds of information about the same place. As a result, GIS is centered on our ability to see connections among kinds of information that are not obvious in other ways."

Although his course is the first to benefit from the new GIS laboratory, Jones is quick to point out that the class and the center are separate entities, and that the interdisciplinary center is campus resource. "The GIS Center is available to any member of the Skidmore community who wants to incorporate the techniques of GIS into work already in progress. My course is preparing students to perform GIS analysis. The center is the place to which they — or anyone — can come for assistance in creating their own GIS analyses," he said.

Other courses currently incorporating GIS applications include GE 371, "Independent Research in Geosciences," taught by Kyle Nichols, assistant professor of geology, who has two students using GIS this year. One is classifying tributaries to the Colorado River into similar erosion patterns to develop a sampling protocol for identifying long-term sediment generation. This research is part of a larger project to determine the rate and quantity of the sediment that eventually is trapped behind the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams. Another student of Nichols is participating in a multidisciplinary study of the Kayaderosseras Basin. By analyzing data collected from well logs, and incorporating GIS, the student is attempting to build a three-dimensional model of the depth and the type of sediment on top of the bedrock, to increase understanding of the basin's hydrology.

In Sociology 213, "Crime and Victimization" Associate Professor David Karp's students analyze crime data provided by the Albany Police Department to create crime maps using GIS software. Beyond building simple crime maps, students develop sociological hypotheses about the causes of crime and test them by creating maps that look at crime hot spots and various demographic variables.

Jones anticipates that the GIS center also will be a place to conduct interdisciplinary research that will serve the greater Saratoga community, continuing along the lines of the Skidmore, Saratoga Study Group. Since its inception in 1999, the SSSG (which includes both campus and community members) has considered questions on such topics as education, social services, housing, development, transportation, and environmental concerns. The goal has been to generate reliable information that informs community discussions about these matters. Said Jones, "One feature of the GIS Center is that it fits right into the longstanding Skidmore tradition of hand and mind: one needs to combine particular tools with the knowledge and creativity that comes with the learning process."

Students in Skidmore's first GIS course are very enthusiastic about being able to visualize relationships that they study in their own major fields. The current students -- all juniors and seniors -- taking the course are applying GIS to majors that range from economics and sociology to environmental studies, geosciences, and management and business, among others. At the same time, they are learning how other disciplines use GIS, thus gaining a multidisciplinary understanding of GIS as a learning tool. Click here for more information about International GIS Day.

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