SSCI 581 Concepts for Spatial Thinking Course Spotlight
Robyn: Welcome to our webinar, presented by USC’s Spatial Science Institute and the Online Geographic Information, Science and Technology Program. Today, we will be highlighting course 581, Concepts for Spatial Thinking.
My name is Robyn MacNab and there is just a few items to go over before we get started. You are in listen-only mode. This means, you can hear us but we cannot hear you. If you have questions, type them in the questions and answer box. We will answer as many questions as possible at the end of the webinar. A copy of this webinar will be sent to you shortly.
Here’s a quick look at today’s agenda. I would now like to introduce our host for today, Doctor Robert Vos. Doctor Vos is our Director of graduate admissions for the online GIST program. He also teaches RTIS project management class, along with advising both our online master students and our PhD students. He has successfully advised 20 students with their thesis. And some of these students have been published and have won various awards for their projects.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Doctor Vos. I will turn the webinar over to you and I will join you for the question and answer session.
Robert: Thank you very much, Robyn. It’s really a pleasure to be with you, and I want to say a big welcome to everybody who’s joined us today. My actual title is Director of Graduate Studies and so I’m involved in supervising the curriculum and advising students in the admission’s process and the thesis process and many parts of our graduate program.
So, today we’re going to use our time in I think the most efficient way we can in kind of three parts. I’m going to give you a very quick introduction to the different programs that we offer in our online suite of geographic information science technology program set at USC Spatial Science Institute. And then we’re going to do a deep dive into 581 and that will be with my colleague, Jennifer Bernstein who I’ll introduce here to you in just one second.
And then, we will have a Q&A, some time for questions and the answers from you all at the end of the hour. So as I mentioned today, I’ll be joined by my colleague Jennifer Bernstein. Doctor Bernstein finished her PhD in Geography, University of Hawaii, Manoa in 2017. And is just joining us this year and already making big contributions in terms of rethinking the way we teach 581 as we’re constantly updating and innovating our courses.
And she will be joined actually briefly by a special guest during her presentation on 581. We’re going to have Christopher Marder who is a student who is now finishing his thesis in our program and took 581 a few semesters ago. And he’ll be able to talk a little bit about his experience in 581 and in the program. So looking forward to hearing from Christopher later in the webinar as well.
So a few words as I said about the program overall from me, about USC and the Spatial Sciences Institute. Obviously, USC is a top ranked private university, located in Southern California. We are an R1 university which means we’re focused both on research and teaching. And that’s a very special thing for the Spatial Sciences Institute because USC is a big university with many different schools. There’s engineering and Price School of Public Policy and Keck School of Medicine and other departments within Dornsife college where we’re located.
And we’re really integral to research and teaching in all of these different parts of the university and we have many affiliated faculties who come from these different parts of the university. And so we have many aspects of our program where we’re deploying research and teaching in coordination with faculty and these other departments. And so the many ways, the many domains that just can work in is where we’re really involved.
In terms of our online program, we have M.S. GIST degree and three certificate programs that I’ll tell you more about in just a minute here.
So a little bit more about USC. We’re ranked 23 among National Universities. Of course we’re accredited by WASC. And the Spatial Science Institute, it’s important to note that we’re a member of UNIGIS, we’re very involved in the industry. UNIGIS is an international organization for GI science so we work quite a lot with international connections and our colleagues around the world in developing GIST, both tools and techniques. We’re also an Esri development center and we have several other organizations that we’re involved in and linked to.
So the master of science in GIST is our master’s degree and our core degree in GIST here. As it says here, it’s 28 units, 12 core units, 12 elective units and then a two-part thesis. And what’s worth noting here I think is that actually our thesis capstone, have a required thesis for all of our M.S. students really ensures quality and rigor in our education and it’s actually pretty well unique among GIST programs, nationwide. Either online or residential to have a required thesis.
I coordinated a large panel at the AAG last year with about nine faculty from across the country and we looked at different ways doing the capstone and we’re the only program that really requires a thesis but that’s partly because we’re an R1 university and we really believe in research, in the value of research and integrating that in our teaching.
So we also have articulated though a very, very careful process to accomplish the thesis, so very few of our students get stuck. They learn the skills, they’re doing the thesis as they go along and they’re able to accomplish their goals and the thesis then sometimes leads on to a PhD program or sometimes becomes a calling card for a first job. More often actually becomes that calling card for a first job.
The other thing I think to note about our M.S. degree is that it can be completed within 20 months. And students who work hard can make fast progress in our degree because we offer almost all of our classes three times a year. And even our advanced electives, we offer at least twice per year. So what this means is that students who want to work hard can get through quickly, can harvest a valuable degree in the job market quicker and we see that as a real positive for the program, it’s part of our commitment.
So we’ll run a class, even if it has very few students because … four or five students or six students because that’s what that advanced elective had that semester. Because we are committed to helping our students meet their goals and finish their degrees quickly.
Then we also have a graduate certificate in GIST and you see here a picture of Catalina island and so the GIST certificate is basically the core classes that are in the master’s degree with one elective and it includes the core class that’s in the master’s degree as well that has a one week excursion for field work to the Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island. And so this has been a really formative part of our program, it’s a chance for our students, even when they’re online, to really get to know each other personally. And in that week and learn field techniques in a really precise way, where they can really understand the limits of satellite visibility and how that affects accuracy on the ground.
We’ve also begun introducing in to the Catalina week a manned aerial vehicles, UAVs, drones, other ways of gathering data because it’s tied to our course on Geospatial Data Acquisition, SSCI 587. So it’s just a really great opportunity in our courses, something to highlight.
Many students come and take the certificate and it’s a boost in their career, maybe they already have a master’s degree or an undergrad degree in another area and now they can add the spatial thinking and the spatial tools and techniques to their repertory.
We have a graduate certificate in geospatial leadership and this is a really unique thing to USC as well. Not any other program quite like it in the country. This is for people who are a little bit more senior in their geospatial careers and we’re training project managers, we’re training leaders. We feel that there is real demand in the industry now, this industry is growing so fast for leadership and we want to help students prepare to advance their careers in that way.
And so this really … the leader here in developing this is our Director John Wilson who teaches the capstone course in this particular certificate.
And then we have a graduate certificate in geospatial intelligence. And our GEOINT program is led by Professor Fleming, Steven Fleming, who is a retired colonel from the U.S. Army with service in Afghanistan who was also for many years at Westpoint and so he just really helped us to develop a terrific GEOINT certificate and this certificate, you know, the idea here is to really train people up quickly for what they need to be GEOINT analysts and kind of get them out into the industry very quickly.
So what I’d like to do now is turn it over to Jennifer Bernstein to talk to us a little bit about the foundational course of our program, 581, Concepts for Spatial Thinking. Welcome Jennifer.
Jennifer: Thank you so much Bob. Hi everybody and thanks so much for taking time out of your busy day to be here with us. So, I’m Jennifer Bernstein, I’m one of the instructors at the Spatial Sciences Institute and like Bob said, today we’re highlighting the introductory course, Concepts for Spatial Thinking or SSCI 581.
So the course is designed really as an introduction to the geographic information science and more importantly, to the cartographic and the spatial concepts that are underlying spatial thinking as well as geospatial technology more generally. So we have both the very theoretical underpinnings of the field as well as the much more applied aspects of it.
So this is an ideal course for people who want to improve their GIS skills and also want to understand the underlying concepts. And one thing I really want to emphasize from the onset about this course is that it’s a really deep introductory course. You come away from it, able to discuss like I said, both the theoretical and the applied aspects. It’s a great course for some people that have some GIS experience but also for people who are totally new to both GIS as well as distance learning.
The screenshot here is what our blackboard learning management system interface looks like and this is one of the weekly modules that are very clearly designed into the introductions, the objectives, the materials, the assignments. So they’re very easy to navigate. The courses are small, they’re about 20 people each, maximum. And there’s is no teaching assistants. Not there’s anything wrong with teaching assistants but what this basically means is that you have a lot of interaction with faculty, all of whom have their PhDs and really our focus in the department is the teaching.
And as Bob said earlier, we’re constantly trying to improve our courses, improve our teaching to be consistent with what is sort of state of the art in the field because it is a rapidly changing field. Also cognizant of the sort of professional space in which our students go into as well as sort of very sort of the industry standard with respect to online or distance teaching and learning.
I also want to reassure anyone thinking about this program that there are people that come to this course with all different levels of expertise. Some come with a great deal of expertise in GIS, others don’t and the course is really designed to accommodate that. I feel like the first couple of weeks, a lot of students are asking me, “I’m feeling a little bit like maybe I don’t …” and what they don’t know is every student is asking the same thing. So everybody comes from a very different place. But really, by the end, people have taken a real deep dive into this introductory subject.
So some of our topics that we cover, these include the fundamentals of geographic information science, this includes geodesy, the role of maps in science policy and everyday life, spatial analysis, modeling and visualization which we typically perform, using Esri’s ArcGIS ecosystem.
With respect to the courses scope and purpose. The real broad objective of the course, especially for folks who are new to the GI sciences and geography is to demonstrate the value of thinking spatially. So geographers and spatial scientists tend to think in sort of a unique way. We think about place, we think about space, we think about location, we think about scale and we also think about flow and connections between different places.
We also have a unique way of approaching and figuring out problems. So why is Facebook, why have they located their servers in Prineville, Oregon? Why does property on Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley cost as much as land in downtown Manhattan? So you know, despite the argument out there that the world is flat, we really show how spatial thinking is a critical problem solving tool across many, many different disciplines and areas of expertise.
So we also develop creative problem solvers that are ready for problem solving in the quote unquote real world. So we have a series of ArcGIS lab, we not only teach you how to do the software but preparing you to conduct real world problem solving and be able to use your own critical thinking skills within that interface to come up with solutions to problems that you don’t necessarily have a cookbook or a workbook for. For many an application of this is the final project and I’ll talk about that in a little bit.
We also accommodate a wide variety of student objectives, both in terms of your student academic objectives as well as just general interest areas. We have students from … whoever is doing the GIST and master’s as well as the graduate certificate, the Geospatial Intelligence graduate certificate, if you’re in health track in the Keck School of Medicine’s Master’s of Public Health Program. We have students from the Price School of Public Policy. We also have students coming from history, economics, planning department, anthropology sometimes and we tailor the course to provide opportunities for students with sort of different disciplinary backgrounds and goals to really pursue the area that’s the most relevant to their field but also gaining mastery in a course skillset that’s applicable more generally across these different fields.
Over there in the right is a picture of the textbooks that we use. A couple of them, both the getting to know our GIS as well as the fundamentals of geographic information systems.
And some of the topic areas that we cover in the course, I mentioned these briefly on the last slide. One is geodesy, so this is the branch of science that is concerned with the size and the shape of the earth and determining precise locations on its surface. Unfortunately, the earth is both round and bumpy which makes mapping complicated but we will cover that in some depth in this course.
We look at the fundamentals of geographic information systems and also how they apply to a variety of disciplines, like the natural and the social sciences, also the community is more broadly, engineering, economics and also professional applications like architecture, health, journalism and social work.
We explore the ArcGIS ecosystem so we look at how the software can be used to represent space and analyze spatial questions through a series of tutorials. They cover different types of geospatial data, both raster and vector data models, different coordinate systems, map projections and geoprocessing. And then we also look at spatial data more generally.
So the ability to understand and analyze different types of datasets is a really essential component at gaining mastery over GIS. So we look at through our core fundamental geospatial dataset such as the US census and we gain the knowledge and the skills to be able to process, interpret and analyze this within the geographic information space.
How does the course work? Some of you listening may have had experience with distance learning and I got my master’s degree remotely so I’m very sensitive to the ways in which these distance learning interfaces can be used in a variety of ways. So the learning management system, all of the material’s delivered asynchronously through the Blackboard learning management system. What this means is there’s not prescribed class times that you show up.
We have due dates, we have assignments and there’s a couple instances in the course, mainly having to do with the final project where you’ll meet with your instructor at a time that you agree on together and you’ll do a final project presentation. Again, at a time that works for you. But there are no official class times in the way that a face-to-face course has those.
So with respect to feedback, I want to describe these images on the right, just for a minute. Like I say, the upper right is sort of a weekly content module which again contains an introduction, the objectives, and all the materials that you need to be able to complete that week’s assignment. On the left, that is one of the videos I record of myself, weekly or biweekly whenever I find it to be necessary. They are captioned, they are automatically captioned and what I do is I just sort of check in, I provide some reminders about what’s going on that coming week, I talk about maybe areas from the previous week that people seemed to have problems with. And we just generally troubleshoot and check in. So I record those regularly and post them in my announcements.
And then you have the bottom right, this is actually me speaking with my husband, but this is an example of the interface. We all hold regular office hours and meetings using the videoconferencing service Bluejeans which is … we’re all given access at the USC community. And I have regular office hours but honestly, when I’m working, my Bluejeans link is on and students do call me and we chat and so there really is somebody on the other end of the line and very accessible.
We have about a 24 to 48 hour email turnaround. So I guarantee that if you email me, even if the answer is, “I don’t know, let me look into it”, I will get back to you within a very short period of time. We also have discussion spaces in Blackboard where students share information with one another. So it’s another place that you’re running into a problem with a GIS lab, you can check in and see if another student had the same questions and there is a lot of sort of connection with fellow students in addition to connections with faculty that can help you get over the hump and when there’s issues with any component of the course.
We provide very detailed feedback on assignments in a timely fashion. And like you can see it from up here, there are regular course announcements. So we’re checking in weekly if not more frequently. I’m always left concerned about saying too much than too little. So I’ll send out announcements usually three, four times a week, just to sort of check in and make sure that everyone is up to speed. If things change, or even if I just sort of find something in the news that I feel is appropriate to our area of study.
I also want to say that we have a really proactive approach to accessibility. There is captioning, there is a description of all images, and we really sort of try to follow the principles of universal design. So this is presenting information and content in multiple different ways, providing more than one way for students to sort of express their knowledge and also really to just sort of stimulate interest and motivation for learning more broadly. So accessibility really is at the front of our minds when we’re designing courses because we know that students come in with different skillsets and sort of different needs and we’re really there to deal with that in a proactive fashion.
With respect to the different assignment types and resources that you have access to in this course, we have a resume assignment, this is done during your first week. So all students post and maintain a public resumé, a biography and a headshot on the student community Blackboard site. There is an option to opt out but if you don’t opt out, the resumé is included in the Spatial Sciences Institute Graduates resumé book. So this is here to both promote our program as well as you and your skills and your experiences and your professional goals and aspirations.
We have discussion forums, these include introductions, some spatial thinking activities and an opportunity to reflect on various aspects of the course. With respect to the reading quizzes, we have short open book quizzes which emphasize the key points from the reading. We also have written assignments. So this is really when you dig in to the discussions and the debates and the normative frameworks that define the field.
There are five of these assignments, there are some articles that are assigned and then you get to choose from a variety of other articles that are tailored to your specific area of interest. So we have those writing assignments.
And then we have the ArcGIS tutorials as well as the GIS data tutorials and like I mentioned earlier, the ArcGIS tutorials familiarize students with using ArcGIS pro and also applying skills to various problem solving scenarios. So we use the Law and Collins Getting to Know ArcGIS workbook as well as Esri web courses. But then we take those skills that we learn from the textbook and the web courses and apply them to basic research problems by applying the skills from that module.
So first we learn the skills and then we apply them into a basic research problem. So it’s a combination of gaining a certain skillset and then being able to apply it in a critical thinking type of fashion that maybe similar to the line about that someone might see in their professional context.
So then we also have the GIS data tutorials. So this again is when we collect and study, techniques for processing spatial data. They include the US census, elevation, hydrography, landcover and also transportation networks. And we learn to identify things like the spatial and temporal granularity, measurements scales, sample design and also suitability for different types of applications.
So in terms of the resources now that can be accessed. First of all, we have the spatial sciences server and technological support. So we use the SSI Server which is a geoportal or a virtual desktop that gives access to lots of different types of professional software. So you can see sort of a screenshot at the bottom right of what it looks like when you log into that portal. And what it means is that you’re not required to purchase or download any of the software, any of the geospatial software that’s required to complete these assignments. In fact, as you can see on the image on the bottom left, there’s a wide variety of proprietary software and open source GIS applications that are available to students.
These include ArcGIS for desktop, ArcGIS online, IDRISI GIS analysis, IDRISI image processing and much more, including datasets. So this is all really up-to-date industry standard software that allows for spatial thinking, analysis and modeling and visualization for students with a variety of different backgrounds.
And I spoke earlier about the faculty but like I mentioned, the class sizes are very small. All faculty are PhD and the focus really is teaching. So like I mentioned before, there is a lot of one-on-one interaction.
And real briefly, I want to talk about the final project. So this is really an opportunity to integrate both the theoretical concepts as well as the technical skills that we’ve learned throughout the semester by framing a geospatial question for decision support in a topic that connects with each student’s academic path.
So there are five different components of this. We develop a bibliography and this bibliography is developed with other students in the course with your similar interest area. So it’s sort of a group project that ends up being mutually beneficial to everybody involved, it builds a really strong intellectual cohort and so it sets the foundation for a very sophisticated project proposal.
Then we propose the project and there’s a one-on-one meeting with faculty at the beginning to sort of make sure that the project is doable, appropriate in scope, that there is sufficient data to support it. And then a data report is submitted, showing that we’ve actually acquired the complete set of data.
And then there’s the final report, this includes maps and figures and references, there is … we’ll provide a lot more information in the course. And then we conduct a final presentation. So each student delivers a presentation of the final project and attends the other students’ during the final exam period. And with consent, we capture these and share this with the broader spatial science community. So you have this embedded brief summary of primary research that you’ve conducted that you can show off to whoever you feel fit.
So as Bob mentioned a little bit earlier, we are lucky to have with us today Christopher Marder. So Christopher is a current student in our master’s program. He took 581 last spring, he’s currently in a GIS internship now and I just thought that the best person to tell you what it’s like being a student in this course is someone who has recently been a student in this course. So Christopher, thank you so much for taking the time out of your internship to join us today, and I’m just going to ask you a few questions.
So like I mentioned, you are a master’s of science student in the Spatial Sciences Institute. So when you were making your decisions what programs to choose, why did you end up choosing the USC program with respect to who you are as a student and a professional and what did you offer you personally when you were looking at it, versus other programs?
Christopher: Absolutely. So there’s kind of two prongs to that answer. First, professionally, as it was mentioned earlier in the presentation that this program tends to attract folks from all walks of life and all different types of academic backgrounds and professional experiences. I’m definitely one of those. My undergraduate was in anthropology and I took that career doing social services out in the Phoenix, Arizona area for about the past eight years.
And what I realized after doing that is I really wanted an opportunity to explore more of the legislative analysis, or public policy aspect versus doing the day-to-day work which is still very important but for my purposes professionally, I wanted to take that to another level and so when I was looking around at particular programs that would fit that bill, what I realized is I’m a visual kind of person, I like doing creative things and I like working with data.
And when you take all that together, GIS is one of those programs that really encapsulates well of those aspects. You have the visual aspect, we’re working with maps, you have the data aspect that works with volumes and volumes of spatial data and not even non-spatial data. So professionally, I realized that GIS career or transitioning into a GIS career from what I’d done previously will allow me to keep those relevant experiences that I had in the past but apply them to new ways that I could take that and be a better … or be a different kind of benefit to maybe again legislative analysis or public policy analysis.
Logistically, of the other prong, when I was looking around for different programs, sometimes there are some really wonky ones out there and that’s not to dissuade those other types of programs but there is one school I saw for instance had a master’s of advanced study and I thought, “Well, that’s kind of weird, why can’t it just be a master’s of science program?”
And so speaking from a particular job securing position, I wanted to choose a program that had not only was it a master’s of science title but also had a relatively straight forward name to it which sounds rather simple if you think about it but really, when you go to explain to an employer about kind of background you have in your graduate study, GIS tends to be a nice catch all that is really well recognized across the board. So that was one of the reasons, both combined, both of those, excuse me, was one of the reasons I ended up choosing USC program.
Jennifer: Thanks so much, Christopher. Now you started to hint at this but I was wondering, you know, this really is sort of the first course that a lot of students take coming into the program. And I was wondering if you could talk about how 581 specifically helped you navigate the rest of your academic career at USC in the Spatial Sciences Institute?
Christopher: Yeah, absolutely. So 581 does two things really, really well. First and foremost, it gives you, as it was mentioned before, the actual technical skills regarding what it’s like to use these programs and to an extent, some of them are a little bit user-intuitive. For the most part, though, they are not, hence the reason why you’d want to join an academic program like this.
So 581 is a nice sandbox for lack of a better term really to get your feet wet in terms of what is it like to interface with this kind of stuff, what is it like to conduct spatial research, what is it like to upload data, what is it like to work with data? But aside of that technical aspect, we’ve been talking about spatial thinking and what the program is really focused on is more about developing the spatial thinker in conjunction with utilizing the tools from Esri and among others.
And 581 provides that great baseline of the spatial thinking paradigm. And even if it’s something that you wouldn’t necessarily think about or you didn’t have prior background in, again, coming from my social sciences work or social services work, I took spatial thinking for granted and I never really thought about how that is applicable nor how to easily define it.
And so 581 does that really, really well by providing a nice broad overview. And then in some cases you may even think it’s a bit overkill but when you push through it and you start again getting into the nitty gritty of your program as you advance through, it ends up playing a really, really important part. And then it’s nice to have that to reference to as you’re working through.
Jennifer: Thanks Christopher, that’s helpful to know that that dual approach of really sort of giving students the time and the saddle with the technical aspect of the field as well as sort of that theoretical base that they can come back to when maybe other very technical things might seem to be a little abstract. So that’s really good to hear.
So I wanted to know, students come to the program with all different levels of both GIS experience and distance learning experience. So what was your background and also, what was your experience in terms of being able to master and engage in both the Blackboard interface as well as accessing the server and sort of the associated software through the server in this introductory course?
Christopher: Yeah. I think when it comes to navigating the computer systems, both Blackboard and the virtual desktop, there is a tendency to think that you’re either going to break your own equipment or you’re going to break USC’s equipment. And today, I haven’t run into issues with either of them. I’ve done distance learning at least for a few courses under my undergraduate, I kind of mixed and matched between the two using the online environments and then the classroom. And I was able to find that the Blackboard was relatively straight forward to work with.
If you feel like you’re going to end up clicking into a loop of some sort and you end up getting lost, Blackboard’s really self-contained. So if you end up clicking somewhere, you can very well just end up clicking back into something else and you’ll be absolutely fine.
And the same goes with the virtual desktop as well. Since the majority of the processing and the majority of the memory stuff is being done on the USC side, the burden on your own personal computer is very, very light. I’m running Windows 8.1. on mine which is a little bit older but on a little bit older machine which goes against the recommendations of the program but nevertheless, it still works.
So, and again, if you end up feeling like you’re going to break something, chances are that you’re not because these systems are very well self-contained and they’re very well maintained as well.
So I have yet to run into any technical issues with that. I would say the one thing is if you’re going to do wifi which I am … which for the majority of the program I have been versus the hardline, you want to make sure that you are within relatively good distance because despite the ease of using these systems and the lack of power, sometimes when you get into the actual geo processing stuff through the virtual desktop or even just accessing the virtual desktop, it can be a lot of memory chunking I guess or a lot of data movements. Excuse me, I’ll say it that way. Back and forth.
So you want to make sure that your wifi is good and strong and up for that. But otherwise, it’s a relatively straight forward system and very, very easy to navigate and chances are you’re not going to break anything.
Jennifer: That’s very reassuring, Christopher, thank you. So just a couple more questions. So some students come to a distance learning program concerned about that sense of community. You know, whether or not they’re going to be able to engage with faculty, be able to engage with their fellow students and whether or not there’s that sort of same sense of camaraderie that are traditionally associated with face-to-face courses.
Can you speak a little bit about that, specifically in the context of 581 but maybe your experience sort of more broadly in the program?
Christopher: Yeah, absolutely. So the key and the term that was mentioned before is asynchronous. So with that, it’s tempting to think that you know, when you’re going into a graduate program that it’s going to be very structured and this program is in terms of the day to day, here is what you need to be doing each and every day for each and every minute.
However, with this program because the content is posted usually like it’s said about a week ahead at time, you are left to your own devices in terms of how to manage your time, when to do the readings, when to do all these other types of assignments. You are left to do that on your own and that can be a little intimidating and sometimes, you kind of think like, “I wish I had a little bit more structure.” But the sooner that you accept the fact that this is an asynchronous program meaning once it’s posted you are obligated to get going and get on your work, you can push through it.
That said though, just because it’s asynchronous doesn’t necessarily mean that the student camaraderie aspect isn’t there. Again, given the fact that I came to the program with my background, I’ve met many, many other classmates who come from all sorts of different backgrounds there. They’re from the military, be it from they’re working right now professionally in GIS, being they’re the same boat as me, they don’t have GIS experience but maybe they’re computer science background. So the camaraderie aspect to it, you get some really interesting discussions during the assignments about the different kinds of perspectives and what spatial thinking means for folks across the board, across different disciplines.
And I know some students … I haven’t personally partaken in it, sometimes they’ll set up virtual, other social networking sites so to speak outside and say, “Hey, if anyone wants to join in, please let us know, we’ll keep this site open.” And they’ll use that to collaborate on projects or they use that to talk about the assignments in general or even talk about news in spatial sciences in general.
So again, despite the fact that there’s an asynchronous aspect to this in terms of you are your own castle, you are your own moat for lack of a better term to describe how you get the project done, there is a lot of support from the student community, given the diversity and the fact that everyone wants to engage in talking about spatial sciences.
Because we’re all in this, this is all a type of program that we want to be in. We want to succeed and so everyone here is to support each other.
Jennifer: Thanks Christopher, it sounds like you’re really hitting on some of the major benefits of the asynchronous model which is that you can do it at your own time and also the fact that because you can do it on your own time, you need to do it on your time and develop a process that works for you. But that’s nice to know that the camaraderie still feels like it’s there.
But just to finish up with our little interview. You are in a GIS internship now. And I wonder if you could speak just a little bit to the way the program prepared you to be able to work with the spatial technologies that you have encountered in your internship and also with the other professionals in the same space.
Christopher: Absolutely. So first and foremost, when I mentioned to my internship that I was working with Esri products and that I was learning on what you’ll learn about ArcPro and ArcMap or ArcGIS Pro and ArcMap, they were very excited about that and I was very reassuring to them. And since Esri is the market leader for the majority of GIS products, there are of course a few caveats to that, especially with Google maps and Google earth and things like that. But for the most part, each and every day, when I show up I am using ArcMap so the fact that I have had time in the educational setting to utilize that interface, to utilize some basic spatial analysis and to use that in a production environment where I’m at with my internship was quite relieving.
Not to say that there wasn’t still some learning curve, even while I’m in the internship to do things a certain way that they want it done but nevertheless, the fact that I was able to log in and I could recognize the interface and feel comfortable knowing what was where and how to get access to it, that was very, very helpful. So that calmed my nerves quite a bit.
And the second aspect of it and it’s kind of really weird and if you get into the program you’ll definitely learn more about it. But I was literally asked in my interview what’s the difference between two major types of datasets are when it comes to GIS. And specifically, that was what’s the difference between a vector dataset and a raster dataset? Again, you’ll pick up on that difference as you get through the program. But what’s odd about that is that that’s a very basic question for GIS professionals. The difference between those two, knowing the difference between those two is the bread and butter of what we do, it’s how we guide our research, it’s how we put together our spatial thinking questions, it’s how we manipulate data in a GIS environment.
And 581 was definitely able to help me answer that because it gets pounded in you, time and time and time again. So if you think like some of it might be overkill or you think this is way too basic, even if you’re coming with GIS experience, the basics help, absolutely the basics help. And the basics matter because if they were going that ask that from me in an interview and I was kind of taken aback by it, chances are that that’s something that other employers in the future will want to continue to know as well.
So the 581 class really sets you up well with that basic overarching concepts of spatial thinking, it sets you up well with getting your feet wet with the Esri products and the GIS products and it really helps you set up well with how you’re going to work with data and how you’re going to be able to apply that to you grander cause as you move through your academic program.
Jennifer: Thank you so much Christopher. This, I think, has been really helpful and thanks for taking the time out of your new internship to call in and provide a little bit more information. We all really appreciate it.
Christopher: My pleasure.
Jennifer: So I’m going to hand it back over to Robyn to provide a little bit of information and closing.
Robyn: Thank you so much, we certainly appreciate hearing from both of you today.
I want to take a quick look today at the admission’s requirements. Certainly, if you have any questions specific to these requirements you can reach out to Jami, you can reach out to me, we would be delighted to go over all of the admission requirements or any particular questions that any of you may have about the program in general.
Now, why don’t we go ahead and go directly to the questions and answers session. And Christopher, I actually have a question for you if you don’t mind.
Christopher: No, not at all.
Robyn: Thank you.
How much time did you spend each week studying on program studying and school related work?
Christopher: Yeah, so this will kind of depend on a lot of things. It’ll depend on the assignments, it’ll depend upon the reading material and it’ll depend on basically your own personal kind of scheduling, excuse me, that’s what I was thinking of.
So for me, since I did just get this internship and I’m looking hopefully to get another here very soon, cross my fingers, I would say that on average you’ll spend at least, and again, it depends on your time, you’ll spend about maybe a couple of hours a night during the week and it really depends on your ability as well, how you feel that you can read technical material, how you feel you can read editorial material coming from those journals. It’ll also depend upon the kind of assignment in terms of its length and in terms of its detail, if it’s going to be somewhat of like a major research assignment where you’re going to type up like a 900 word essay. Or maybe it’s something quick for a discussion board aspect.
So I usually see myself during the week working about a couple of hours each night and then I use the weekends to catch up on things that I didn’t necessarily do during the week.
As it was mentioned during the presentation, assignments, when they’re given out the beginning of the week, they usually are due that following week. So they’re either due on that Sunday or due on that Monday. Now again, that can vary between each professor but for the most of the courses that I’ve been in to date, they’re usually given about a week turnaround, if not even a little bit more.
So, in terms of crunch time and balancing everything, I have not been able to … excuse me, let me not get jumbled here. I have been able to find that the balance has been fairly good. That I can get my assignments done, I can still go do my internships, I can still go to work and I can still go hang out as I need to. The key with that is consistency. If you’re going to develop a studying program for yourself, you want to be consistent with it. So if you’re going to say, “I’m going to study one hour a week.” Or not one hour a week, you won’t get through the program. If I’m going to study one hour a night, throughout the week, then you need to stick to that.
And I have found that even if it ends up having to change a little bit, being consistent with how you’re going to study and how you’re going to complete your assignments, that really ends up balancing out everything else. So I hope I answered that.
Robyn: Yes you did. Thank you so much, that was wonderful.
Doctor Vos, I have a question, an interesting question for you. We have one of our attendees has about 10 years of GIS experience and would like to know how the certificate might impact her career and getting a job? Do you think that a certificate program can be as effective as the master’s if she’s looking for another position?
Robert: Does she have a master’s degree already or-
Robyn: Yes, she has a master’s already, in philosophy.
Robert: Okay. So, I think that actually … you know, 10 years of experience in GIS with already a master’s degree, one thing to consider might actually be the certificate in GIS spatial leadership in this case. And I think that could be a very interesting value add to the career at this point. Because probably with that many years of GIS experience and already a master’s degree, probably there’s quite a lot of facility with the technology already and so … and even the concepts of spatial thinking and things like that.
So actually what the Geospatial Leadership certificate will allow is for a chance to really think about project management, think about trends in the industry and how to capitalize on those trends kind of entrepreneurial kind of mode. It would also include the ability to take some electives and some of the advanced electives and kind of cherrypick those in terms of the ones that would really advance your breadth in the field.
And that’s a shorter course, that’s a nine month course to finish that certificate. So that’s something to consider. And the other alternatives would be if you wanted to go your career in a more GEOINT direction and there’d be the GEOINT certificate and if, in discussing things with enrollment advisors or with me if we decided that you would benefit from the general GIST certificate then that’s something we consider as well.
So we really do try to serve every student’s needs very individually. I think that’s one thing, we’re a private university, we’re a large university but we’re a private university. And so we do talk to students in a lot of detail about what their experience is before, what their education is before and we try to craft the program they take so that it serves the best interests of their career.
And so, if that means considering even sometimes waiving some classes and then opening up the possibility to take some advanced electives in place of those, that’s something we look at on a case-by-case basis.
So I hope, hopefully Robyn that helps with that question.
Robyn: Thank you very much, it does.
Doctor Bernstein, I have a question for you. For those with less direct experience in GIS, do you feel an internship is the best way to get your foot in the door for a job or do you see that going right into a regular position is a possibility?
Jennifer: Let’s see. Do you mean after finishing this program?
Robyn: I think during the program.
Jennifer: During the program. You know, there’s a lot of variables. I think it would really depend on the student’s individual path, you know, we all make professional decisions and have to weigh a lot of variables as we do. Sometimes an internship at a company that you really want to work at in the long run makes more sense than an entry level position somewhere that is less interesting or appealing to you.
And you know, I think that one thing that’s great about the program is that us faculty talk to one another about our students in a very deep way. We know every student, we know their skillsets, we know what they’re excited about, we know their strengths and weaknesses and we engage with our students a lot. So I think that would probably be something that we would have to figure out on a case-by-case basis. But I guarantee that we really care about our students getting to a place that makes sense for them and are sort of consistent with what their short and long term goals are with respect to the field more generally.
I know that’s kind of a vague answer but I feel like I just would want to get to know the student a little bit more and figure out where he or she is coming from to be able to answer it in a way that makes sense for sort of that.
Robyn: Thank you so much. Christopher, do you have any insight on this question?
Christopher: Yeah, I mean and again, I’ll approach it from at least my particular experiences. I would basically agree, yes, with Doctor Bernstein’s … with the considerations that when you look at taking on an internship role, especially if you’re coming to GIS with other professional background experience and it kind of seems like, “Why I am doing an internship if I’m getting this advanced degree?” From a practicality standpoint, and again, this is just what I’ve been seeing when I search through jobs through indeed or what have you.
The professional entry level job for those who don’t have GIS experience but have a master’s degree, they are a wee bit few and far between. You might get some success with the federal government or any sort of other government agency, so for my particular case, because I even though I’m coming to … even though after I finish, I’ll be graduating, knock on wood, with a master’s of science degree, the fact that I don’t have any direct professional GIS related experience, it makes me a little nervous and again, that is in context of all the job ads that I have been seeing when it comes to when we want a GIS professional, here are the requirements that we want.
So education wise, this program hits it out of the park, I’m learning what I need to with web GIS, hopefully. Well, not hopefully, hopefully saying that with programing in terms of customization of a GIS, in terms of working with data. I’m hitting all the marks on that. But then when you start cruising down to the part about, well, we still really would like someone in a production environment quote unquote, that’s where it gets a little hairy.
So again, to each and their own employer, they may look at it and take a chance anyway but for me, I decided to take the route of, “Well, I’m going to go ahead and do an internship despite my other professional experience so then everything kind of ties in together that, yes I’m coming to the table with this work but now I also have some actual production work with GIS and that should complement everything that I’m doing with my master’s program.” If that makes sense.
Robyn: Perfect. Thank you so much, Christopher.
Doctor Vos, I have one more question for you. We have a question, do you offer any classes in Python? Can you talk a little about the opportunities for programming, doing programming in our program?
Robert: Yeah, absolutely. Actually it is one of the real strengths of our program that we have a track in our M.S. GIST degree that’s a programming and applications track. And so there is a programming customization course which is kind of the core course in that track which is SSCI 586. And let me mention to you all out there that you can actually do some research yourself to see exactly what’s taught in all of our courses. If you just go to Google and if you put in the USC SSCI and the course number, you’ll get a link to a syllabus that will come up on the schedule of classes at USC. It’ll be one of the first two search returns.
And you’ll be able to see exactly what’s covered in those classes. And so 586, to get back to the question, sorry, a little diversion here, but is really all about Python and ArcPy and sort of integrating that within ArcGIS or in other programs as well, other open source programs and so on.
So it’s a terrific class, it’s nowadays taught by associate professor of the practice Andrew Marx, who comes to us from the US state department and was with the state department for about 10 years and before that at the US Air Force academy, very deeply experienced in GEOINT and in programming and remote sensing and so on.
So there’s a lot there. And then the other two classes in that track, there’s a mobile GIS class and a web GIS class and so you can really emerge from our program on the cutting edge of programming. And be able to be very responsive to the job ads that require those things. And many students write a thesis that’s some sort of application development. So they develop a new mobile GIS app or they develop a new web app or they automate a workflow in a very significant way, you know, a very difficult workflow in a significant way, using Python or something like that. And that becomes their thesis project. So that’s quite often how we approach that.
Robyn: Wonderful, thank you so much. We are actually coming to the end of our webinar. If anyone has asked a question and we didn’t get to it, we will answer those for you on a one-on-one basis.
I want to thank all of our presenters today, we certainly appreciate your time, your information. It was a wonderful experience and I want to thank all of the attendees for being a part of the webinar today.
Thank you everyone.