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Skidmore College
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Mapping as Storytelling: New course takes project-oriented approach

April 28, 2017
If you are telling a story and purposefully avoid making any reference to the “where” of the events—its location, characters’ movements in the space, changes of that space over time—there’s a good chance your listener will feel confused and alienated from the story you are trying to tell. Physical spatial relationships are essential to how we understand actualities, and sometimes the spatial configuration of events can tell intricate tales that text, sound and image can not. During the first half of the spring semester, the GIS (geographic information system) lab was home to a new, 1-credit course, DS 116 Storytelling: Mapping, which focused on using spatial data in a map format to construct digital storytelling platforms.The six-student class was taught by Professor Tom Hart, a lecturer in the Environmental Studies and Sciences Department.
Mapping Class at Geothermal Site

DS 119 students visiting the control hub for the Arts
Quad geothermal field (photo by Tom Hart)

Hart, who teaches introductory and advanced GIS and spatial analysis courses, had experience working with digital platforms to present his research and findings and saw that, at Skidmore, this skill wasn’t being taught.

“In a lot of the GIS classes we don’t go that next step of actually publishing things online,” he said. The class combined lecture and lab; certain concepts of the medium were explored and then these concepts and skills were used in approaching how to present different data sets.

Starting with examples of existing story maps, such as those produced for the Flint water crisis or the 2017 women’s march, the class learned some of the intricacies of effective spatial storytelling and was able to engage with several online mapping services such as Google Maps, Silk and ArcGIS Online.After the initial study of the particulars of mapping as a medium, the class was given a project that was relevant to the space of Skidmore campus as a way to demonstrate, practice, and refine these skills.

The students studied and amassed relevant information to show Skidmore’s growing network of geothermal systems—a network which, given its underground nature, can often be hard to visualize and understand with language alone. Why this project? Says Hart, “I look for things that are especially relevant, things that are timely that are going to work well or have the potential to work well with engaging students. It was hard not to see the geothermal wells going in [behind Palamountain Hall] over the summer" of 2016.

Since the class lasted only half a semester and was primarily oriented toward producing a robust end result, the class worked together in a unique way. “One of the things that I did was that I did not ask for prerequisites of knowing GIS, so the design of the class was as if it were a small startup company,” Hart said. This meant that some students who were versed in the use of the GIS application could focus their energies there, while other students could apply their strengths to other necessary components. 
Jacqueline Carames ’16 had taken GIS classes since her sophomore year and had had several internships that made her familiar with the medium. With the fresh approach toward mapping as a storytelling technique, Carames was able to use her skills for an entirely new application. She plans on using several techniques and concepts in her upcoming environmental studies capstone project.

“It was really interesting that it was kind of, you go into it and learn what you want to learn and take away what you want to take away,” Carames said.
While some students focused on creating the map images, others focused on researching Skidmore’s geothermal projects and how to best embed this information into the various story maps. In order to develop each strand of the project, the class had to have a high level of communication between students; the class would often close with a round-robin discussion of what has been accomplished, what needs to be done and how best to achieve the class’s goals.
“Given the opportunity, the students really did demonstrate independence and the ability to take their own thoughts and direct where the project was going,” Hart said. “In the best of circumstances that’s the outcome that you’d want: I become a teacher to begin with to show what’s possible and then a facilitator in the end so that each person could act on their own initiative and their own thoughts.”
—Adam Simon '19 philosophy
DS 116A: Storytelling: Mapping will be offered again in fall 2017.