Why We Need To Change The Way We Teach GIS To Ecologists

11 Nov

The use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has exploded in the last decade and it is now an important skill for many ecological research projects, as well as being an ever-more common requirement in job adverts.  However, the way GIS is taught to ecologists, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, hasn’t developed in consort with this explosion in its use. Instead, it remains stuck in its roots as a tool for geographers, cartographers and businesses. This means GIS tends to be taught as a series of more or less abstract exercises that demonstrate how to use specific tools within GIS software packages rather than as an integrated skill-set. As a result, while students may learn how to do individual tasks, they often fail to grasp how to apply what they learn to their own research. It doesn’t help that the classes as often taught by geographers who have little understanding of ecology and use standard examples that have no relevance to those working in biological sciences (a standard one involves working out where best to site a new shop based on information about population densities and road networks, and this leaves most ecologists scratching their heads as they try to work out why on earth they’d ever need to know such a thing). In short, the way that GIS is currently taught to ecologists manages to confuse and alienate them, and many simply give up on ever trying to get to grips with this increasingly important skill, to the detriment of both their research and their job prospects.

In this respect, GIS currently finds itself in much the same position that statistics was twenty years ago. Now, we recognise that in order to teach students how to use statistics properly, we need to teach them not just the mechanics of a specific test, but that we need to also teach them everything from survey design, through data collection to test selection and on to how to write up the results.

If the use of GIS in ecological research is to develop in the way that statistical analysis has in recent years, we need to completely change the way it is taught.  We need to stop trying to teach by showing how to use individual tools within GIS software in a more or less abstract manner, and instead teach it as a connected and integrated skill set. This needs to include instructions on how to collect data in a manner that it is GIS-compatible (including how to set up and use GPS receivers properly), how import these data into GIS projects, how to link data from different sources together, and most importantly, how to integrate any work carried out within a GIS framework into other related frameworks, such as statistics. This needs to be taught in a manner and a language that ecologists can easily understand, and this means that it needs to be taught by other ecologists and not members of the nearest Geography faculty.

Students on a GIS In Ecology course learning how to collect GIS-compatible data not in a lecture theatre or in a computer classroom, but in the field as they would do as part of their own research projects.

This is the approach that GIS In Ecology was set up to both pioneer and promote.  It has been developed through more than a decade of use of GIS within my own research projects, training my own graduate students and also teaching various classes. This has culminated in our first course aimed specifically at terrestrial ecologists that GIS In Ecology ran for graduate students at a field station near Glasgow last week.  Over the three-day block, it took students with little or no knowledge of GIS and taught them everything from making a map through collecting data in the field using a GPS and how to build a GIS project that could be used to answer a specific research question.  While some of the course consisted of lectures, most of it involved students working through practical exercises, both in the classroom and out in the field.  All examples and data sets used came from real ecological research projects, meaning that the student were learning their skills in a manner that would be similar to how they would need to be able to apply them.  Similarly, since the course was being taught by someone who was both an ecologist and a GIS specialist, any questions they had could be answered in an ecological framework. 

While the true measure of the success of this approach will only really come once these students start using GIS in their own research projects, the immediate feedback was extremely positive.  By lunchtime on the first day, they’d already made their first map, and at least one said she’d learned more in those three hours than on a dedicated  twelve week undergraduate GIS module. By the end of the course, almost all were eager to start using their newly acquired skills to their own ecological research.  This compares to the large numbers that leave traditional courses vowing to never use GIS again for as long as they live.

However, unlike many modules taught by geographers, the GIS In Ecology approach does not stop there.  By providing a dedicated GIS forum for ecologists, we provide a place where those who take part in our courses (or anyone else who is interested) can ask for help from the GIS In Ecology instructors, and indeed from each other.  Through this, we aim to provide a more integrated and complete training environment that provides ecologists with a way to learn how to actually use GIS in an ecologically meaningful manner and apply it to their own research projects. Our experiences so far have suggested that if this approach was adopted more widely, we would quickly see a sea-change in the use of GIS in ecological research that would greatly benefit both those wishing to make ecology their career and the quality of ecological research as a whole. If, however, GIS continues to be taught in the same piece-meal manner that is, unfortunately, so common at this current time, it is likely to stagnate to the detriment all involved in ecology.

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