Technology

How spatial thinking increases the marketability of a social science major

February 05, 2018 by Cindy O'Dell
Integrated Social Science example

Maps and images combine to help explain the connection between people, place and health, one of many examples used in the study of integrated social studies at Brandman University. ArcGIS Story Maps image courtesy of Sheila Steinberg.

Maps are much more than a tool to help you get from one place to another. They can define problems, help people reach solutions and ultimately spur action, said Brandman Professor Sheila Steinberg, Ph.D., the leading force behind the introduction of geospatial thinking in various programs at the university.

Steinberg revised the Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences, updating it to a B.A. in Integrated Social Sciences and to give graduates of the program problem-solving geospatial analysis skills, something employers in a wide variety of industries are seeking.

Her experience working with Esri’s geographic information system (GIS) softward enabled the new program to emphasize communication, critical thinking and data analytic skills and improve the marketability of its graduates. She included multiple courses that use Esri tools to both analyze data and communicate information effectively.

The program’s foundational course, Integrated Social Sciences Introduction: Policy and Action, includes a focus on spatial thinking and how it can be used to both understand social issues and explore solutions. 

Subsequent courses introduce students to Esri tools, such as Story Maps, to help them communicate ways to take action, analyze demographic and other data spatially, and use multiple research methods to provide creative solutions to problems the students identify.

“I really enjoyed learning about ArcGIS Story Maps,” wrote Brandman student Jennifer Woodward when asked about the foundations course. “My favorite one, though a little heart-wrenching, was the ivory trade in Africa and the huge impact taking place with the elephant population. It was a fantastic way to tell a story and promote awareness, while providing a detailed map of where poaching is occurring, the diminishing population of elephants, and how cultural advancements has helped poaching become more successful. Reading and seeing are two different ways to understand a situation. With the added benefit of the interactive visual aid, I was able to fully understand the impact and implication of what was being to this ecosystem.

Sheila Steinberg
Professor Sheila Steinberg, Ph.D., introduced GIS to her courses at Brandman University. 

“I believe in this day and age, more is needed than just a written word. People need a platform that will show the whole picture.  This platform makes you see and understand more, making a larger impact on issues we face in the modern world.”

Other students shared Woodward’s enthusiasm.  “To read a single map is one great thing. But, if we can read multiple maps and compare them, then we are on another level,” wrote Emily Williams, who admitted she was not that fond of looking at maps prior to the course.

The course uses “The ArcGIS Book: 10 Big Ideas about Applying the Science of Where” by Christian Harder and Clint Brown (2017 Esri Press). The interactive book provides both examples and exercises for students to work through. Hayley Gustafson found the first assignment very challenging, but as she grew more confident, her skill level rose.

The ArcGis Book cover“I learned how to focus on which part of Detroit, Michigan, has children living in poverty so that I can recommend to my hypothetical charity where it should establish programs to help those children. This all taught me that I can use the ArcGIS to help solve real-life problems,” she wrote.

“What separates these classes from those at other universities is they’re not just point and click,” said Lindsay Yossef, an instructional designer with Brandman’s Center for Instructional Innovation (CII) and a key member of the team creating GIS courses both at the undergraduate and graduate level. “The assignments, the content, the resources we’ve build in are interdisciplinary. We were mindful of not pigeonholing our students so they could apply what they’re learning to a variety of sectors.”

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