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Geography in the Community

GEOG 420, GIS in the Community, is designed to provide students with GIS consulting experience, while serving real needs in the community.GEOG 420, GIS in the Community, is designed to provide students with GIS consulting experience, while serving real needs in the community. Developed by Associate Professor Nicholas Nagle in 2016, this course is now in its third year. Each year, Nagle identifies community partners in need of geographic services, and leads his students to develop products satisfying those needs.

“My model for this class is these students form a consulting firm that is providing their services pro bono to the community,” Nagle says.

During the fall 2018 semester, 20 students worked with two community partners – the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) and the United States Forest Service (USFS). For TDEC, the class developed data and maps to help communicate with the public about water pollution in streams and watersheds.

“While TDEC had all this rich spatial data about permits to discharge into our streams, they did not have the GIS manpower to develop maps showing the big picture in a way that resonates with people and teaches the public about water quality in their own communities,” Nagle says. “Our class was able to provide this to them.”

For the USFS, students in GEOG 420 built a web application that uses a site at the UT Arboretum as an opportunity to teach visitors there about how the USFS helps to manage all public and private forests across the United States.

GEOG 420 is not your typical lecture class.

“We don’t have time to lecture. We have to get stuff done,” Nagle says. “One thing I tell students is that their technology skills will be stale even before they walk across the stage with cap and gown. We expect our students to be able to stay current with technology on the job, to self-teach, to find their own role within a team, and to equip themselves to fulfill that role.”

The course also teaches students skills like developing a scope of work and timelines with measurable milestones, and provides practice communicating with and understanding clients and teammates.

“He gave us real life experience of what it’s like working towards a common goal as a team with a deadline,” says one student. “This class almost felt more like a job and I feel more prepared for when I do enter the job market because I believe that I have a better idea of what to expect.”

Nagle developed this course when Derek Alderman was department head. One of his legacies will be an emphasis on community service. He inspired Nagle to think about ways professors in the department could do that while also teaching skills to students.

“I didn’t want to just partner students with local businesses and agencies that could pay for internships,” Nagle says. “It was important for me to get work done that would not otherwise get done. I try to emphasize to students that their skills and knowledge are valuable and that not everyone will be able to afford their services. We have to think about what unmet needs there are within our own community for geography, and to then go and meet them. It’s radically changed how I think about my role at a land-grant university in the 21st century.”