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Engaging Students in Analytical and Proactive Thinking Using Geographic Information System (GIS) Technology

I-Shian (Ivan) Suen, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Urban and Regional Planning Program
L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs



Project Background

One of my responsibilities is to enhance the instructional program of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) applications in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.  This project was a part of a greater effort to develop a comprehensive GIS curriculum that is beneficial to the programs in the School and beyond.  The project served as a key stepping-stone toward achieving that goal.  In addition to the $3,500 from the CTE Small Grants Program, I am also very grateful for the $4,000 matching support from the School to implement this project.

B.  Project Objectives

The main purpose of the project was to acquire licenses of a software suite called CommunityViz1.  The CommunityViz software suite provides advanced GIS tools that will be introduced in a newly developed graduate level GIS course: URSP 627 GIS Applications in Decision Analysis (to be offered in Spring 2006).  The new course emphasizes what-if scenario construction and analysis, three-dimensional (3D) visualization and animation of spatial data.  The course will deliver better and efficient community visioning and future planning within the urban and regional planning program and across disciplines.

Currently the applications of GIS technologies in the School’s instructional program are mostly two-dimensional spatial analyses and mapping.  Many are limited to cross-sectional and static visualization.  With the tools provided by CommunityViz, students will be able to develop what-if scenarios to evaluate public policy outcomes and community development proposals.  These tools will also allow students to construct virtual 3D models (e.g., Figures 1 and 2) to visualize and animate different scenarios.  This will engage students with a new realm of possibilities that go beyond the traditional mapping applications of GIS.


Figure 1.  A Virtual 3D Model2 of a Town Center Created with CommunityViz


Figure 2.  A Close-up View of a Town Center Created with CommunityViz

Most of the effort of this project went into the development of course materials that center on the use of CommunityViz in the classroom/lab.  The course materials provide an extensive set of decision-support applications to help students analyze and visualize the information about their study areas (e.g., Figure 3) and make informed decisions.  It is expected that when the new course is offered, it will be effective to help students engage in analytical and proactive thinking in the classroom and their learning experience.


Figure 3.  A Development Scenario Constructed with CommunityViz

Project Outcomes

To achieve the objectives of the project, the following key tasks were accomplished during the project period:

  • acquired CommunityViz software licenses
  • enhanced my skills and knowledge of using CommunityViz
  • designed a new graduate level GIS course, URSP 627 GIS Applications in Decision Analysis, that introduces CommunityViz and its applications
  • developed course materials for the instructional delivery of the new course
  • developed competency standards for student outcomes assessment, and
  • got approval to offer the new course in the Spring 2006.

The project helped lay the foundation to the design of a School-wide GIS curriculum.  It brought current GIS technologies to the School, the general student body, and the VCU community; and will soon provide a learning environment that is analytical, communicative, and educational.

Significance of the Project

The implementation of the project enhanced the instructional program of the School, met the objectives of the Small Grants Program, and tied to School and University goals in the following ways:

  • By taking advantages of the analytical and modeling capabilities of CommunityViz, the new course will provide students in the School and beyond with tools and techniques for monitoring, modeling, and research in spatial analysis.
  • he new course will use the urban environment as a laboratory to study and develop new approaches to deal with problems pertaining to the public and private sectors.
  • GIS applications are multidisciplinary by nature, the implementation of the project offers great opportunities to promote interdisciplinary studies and collaboration within the School and University.
  • The new course will also offer diverse learning opportunities for both traditional and non-traditional students seeking advancement of their knowledge and skills in current spatial technologies and GIS applications.
  • In short, the new GIS course will greatly enhance the exploratory and predictive power of students in the classroom in program evaluation, policy analysis, community visioning and future planning.

Impact on Teaching, Classroom Instruction and Students

It is expected that this project will have the following impact on teaching, classroom instruction and students in the years to come:

Impact on Teaching

Development of the new graduate level GIS course was an important step in the design of a comprehensive School-wide GIS curriculum.  It allowed the development of new course materials based on current GIS technologies to enrich the instructional program in general and GIS education in specific.  In addition, it increased the pool of graduate GIS courses that are application-oriented and embody ‘learning by doing’ teaching methods.  The grant provided necessary resources to the successful implementation of the new course.

Impact on Classroom Instruction

The project will have positive impact on classroom instruction because it brings current GIS technologies into the classroom.  Using CommunityViz in the new GIS course helps facilitate learning and understanding of community visioning, future planning, policy outcomes assessment, scenario modeling, visualization and animation.  It also helps bridge GIS concepts and applications in the learning environment.

Impact on Students

The new GIS course will provide a dynamic digital environment where the instructor and students can work together and share their views and approaches to experiment different scenarios settings.  By completing this course, students will be able to:

  • acquire hands-on technical skills with the tools and techniques covered in the course
  • develop high level proficiency in spatial analysis and problem solving
  • model and animate scenarios that communicate effectively
  • construct a virtual 3D environment to visualize different scenarios, and
  • integrate the tools and techniques into their major field of study.

Most importantly, this new course will help students engage in analytical and proactive thinking that will enrich their learning experience as well as enhance their GIS potential.


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Last modified: June 20, 2013
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