"The Modern Mapmakers"
  • The Modern Mapmakers
  • The Modern Mapmakers

The Modern Mapmakers

Ursinus students and faculty in environmental studies as well as in the humanities are utilizing geographic information systems (GIS) to create modern-day maps and in-depth analyses that tell a richer story about the landscapes that surround us.

Story by Ed Moorhouse

Long before Google Maps, the earliest cartographers used mathematical calculations and astronomical observations to sketch out their best assumptions of what our world looked like. It was data that provided a key assist to understanding the interplay of space and distance.

Centuries have come and gone and technological advances have been made since those early days of mapmaking, but data isn’t playing any less of a role.

Finding new types of data and ways to integrate them are at the heart of Ursinus’s efforts to foster innovative digital liberal arts learning.

“What it allows us to do is view and think about things spatially, and to broadly think about distance and elevation,” says Tristan Ashcroft, an Ursinus lecturer in environmental studies. “As an instructor, it’s a big deal. It allows me to do things I simply wasn’t able to do before. There’s an entire class that exists [at Ursinus] because we have GIS capability.”

The study of the environment is inherently spatial and the use of GIS has grown to become an important part of environmental science research. The technology allows users to enter spatial data and organize layers of information into visualizations that map and analyze watersheds, land use, storm water management, landscape ecology, climate and a host of other environmental applications.

“To have the greatest impact, data needs to be made visible,” says Gene Spencer, chief information officer (library and information technology) at Ursinus. “Displaying data on a map can turn it into useful information that can inspire new questions and new avenues of research.”

The college’s information technology division has helped many faculty begin to incorporate GIS into their classrooms. Patrick Hurley, an associate professor of environmental studies, says it’s become an important tool across the curriculum.

Hurley’s research often takes place at the intersection of environmental science and policy. His classes examine human-environment interaction and the ways that people relate to, understand, use, degrade and steward nature. Thinking about space and using mapping techniques is part of that work.

“I take those methods as a way to expose students to the practical complexity of the theoretical discussions we have. To me, it’s hard not to talk about these things without looking at real landscapes, whether using air photos or maps of specific areas,” Hurley says. “Visualizing environmental phenomena, including through map-making, is an empowering tool that allows students to learn and generate new insights.”

Perhaps the best example of this is by integrating story maps—which combine maps with narrative text, images and multimedia—into the teaching and learning experience. Hurley’s classes have recently created and published three of these maps: one that offers an in-depth look at restoring a Zacharias Creek tributary in Upper Gwynedd Township, Montgomery County; a reforestation effort in Hunsberger Woods; and a “Bears in the Woods” project that digitally chronicles the trees on the Ursinus campus. In Gwynedd Township, Hurley says, “The real learning process here is teams of students talking to landowners, decision-makers and various stakeholders to generate new knowledge about how these people participate and experience storm water management in the area.”

The advantage, Hurley says, is allowing students to tap into those local experts and resources to gain a better understanding of environmental issues, rather than just reading it in a book or listening to a lecture. And, once the story map is published, it serves to educate other communities in the region who may also be wrestling with similar challenges.

“We’re putting something out into the public domain, and that’s a key motivator,” Hurley says of getting exposure for Ursinus-led undergraduate research.

Reforestation at Hunsberger Woods, located off Ninth Avenue across from the Ursinus campus, is an ongoing collaboration between the college, the borough of Collegeville, the Montgomery County Conservation District and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

In 2015, Ursinus students planted trees there and GIS certainly played a role. 

“You’d like to plant trees, but how are they going to do?” Ashcroft asks. “Can we quantify reasons why some of the trees will live and some won’t survive? Should they be closer to shade? Should they be in lower or higher elevation? Does species selection matter? GIS allows you to quickly analyze that information.”

Today, efforts have been focused on ongoing stewardship and management of the woods, Hurley says. “We’re lucky to have, in Hunsberger Woods, a laboratory for nature conservation and natural area stewardship,” Hurley says. And through a story map created by previous Ursinus students, “a resource that current students can use in classroom learning. They’re seeing and reading research produced by their peers.”

Sarah Becker ’20, an environmental studies major, says she has mostly been analyzing GIS outputs in her work as a student. Still, she is interested in pursuing research questions where GIS data can be used to analyze the spatial components of urban foraging practices that would otherwise be difficult to visualize.

“I believe that GIS provides a more concrete spatial context within which to consider environmental problems,” Becker says. “There is a substantial spatial component to environmental issues that is inherent to studying relations in the landscape. Having a means with which to visualize the relationships between different features of the land simplifies that task.”

GIS isn’t limited to environmental studies. Spencer notes that it has “many potential uses in analyzing and displaying information across nearly every discipline, using data sets that are available from outside sources or those that we create here locally on campus.”

While environmental science students may be looking at the distribution of trees on campus (a common use of such tools), English students may be studying the movements of characters throughout New York in a series of novels, or health and exercise physiology scholars may be researching the incidence of concussion injuries across the country.

Using methods of mapping, spatial analysis and narratives to examine human influence on nature is driving another research project Hurley has taken on, this one funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities. In early 2018, Ursinus was one of 23 colleges nationwide awarded a prestigious humanities connections grant from the NEH.

Hurley is co-leading the project, titled “Trajectories of Transformation,” with Meredith Goldsmith, a professor of English and associate dean of the college. It includes an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students who will examine the suburban environment from literary, historical, scientific and social scientific perspectives.

“It is designed to link the big questions of the humanities to those of the social sciences and natural sciences,” Goldsmith says.

GIS technology is important to fostering these types of interdisciplinary endeavors, and as it continues to be put to use in Ursinus classrooms, students and faculty are looking forward to even more opportunities to collaborate on GIS-informed research projects.

“It’s another arrow in the quiver,” Ashcroft says. “GIS is one of those buzzwords and our students are becoming GIS literate, which is a big deal because it can present a lot of opportunities for students when they graduate. And, it’s a big deal because we’re able to expand on how we do digital liberal arts at Ursinus.”

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