Envisioning the Spatial University

Fulfilling the potential of geospatial technology

Spatial thinking and geospatial technologies remain unrealized opportunities for much of higher education. For example:

  • There’s now compelling evidence suggesting that spatial abilities prepare students for success in STEM coursework and early employment. However, no college or university includes such preparation among its overarching general education objectives.
  • Despite the synthetic power of the spatial perspective, research discoveries too often remain segregated and hidden in disciplinary silos.
  • For nearly a decade, the US Department of Labor has highlighted career opportunities associated with geospatial technologies. Still, relatively few higher education institutions offer advanced, practice-oriented educational programs to prepare students for such opportunities.
  • Geospatial technologies enable students to perform valued service learning projects in their communities. Even among those colleges and universities that have institution-wide service learning programs, however, precious few prepare students to leverage GIS.
  • Enterprise GIS infrastructures offer the potential to save money in campus planning, operations, and facilities management. Given the severe fiscal challenges that confront most higher education institutions, it’s remarkable that so few institutions have realized this potential.

There are plenty of reasons why spatial thinking and geospatial technologies have yet to fulfill their transformative potential in higher education. However, it’s likely that concerted efforts by a few key institutions could have a dramatic impact. Mindful of this, it is apparent that there are five characteristics of “The Spatial University”:

  • Spatial thinking is included in the institution’s general education objectives. Courses that prepare students to fulfill the objective are available across the general education curriculum.
  • The institution hosts and disseminates multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research enabled by the spatial perspective and geospatial technologies.
  • The institution hosts specialized certificate or degree programs whose curricula align with geospatial work force needs.
  • Students are required or at least encouraged to participate in community-based service learning projects or internships, and they are prepared to use GIS and other geospatial technologies as part of those projects.
  • An enterprise GIS infrastructure is in place to support campus planning, operations, maintenance, and sustainability.

Some higher education institutions have several of these characteristics, and a few may have all five. However, no institution has made a point of declaring its commitment to fulfilling the potential of spatial thinking and geospatial technology. This is likely a missed opportunity. In an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace, we believe that a commitment to be a spatial university would be a valuable differentiator.

The distinction is appealing primarily because of a genuine conviction that a spatially literate populace is essential for a sustainable future, as well as a belief that GIS technology can empower spatial thinking.

How would you describe the vision of a Spatial University?

Tom Baker

About Tom Baker

Tom Baker is an Esri Education Manager, specializing in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, teacher education, and educational research. He regularly publishes and presents on geospatial technologies across education.
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  1. Tom Baker says:

    Note: While many of the ideas above are an elaboration of several
    community conversations, it should be noted that the authorship of this
    post is very thankfully shared with David DiBiase.

  2. James Boxall says:

    Thanks for leading the topic Tom ( I hope to see you at EsriUC in about 24 hours).
    My assistant is there now and she would make no bones about it in stating her mission in life ( and I share it of course) is to have every student, faculty, staff and administrator using GIS as part of their work and personal lives.  And slowly, over the 7 years we have existed, we are making progress.

    And here’s the kicker. It started with Jacks move to support libraries in the mid90s. From then until 2004 it was a daily battle to do more and offer more. And in case I forget, our biggest barrier ( then and now) is being in a country and region that has had some of the  strictest policies for data ( charging fees) and when it is easy, the licensing is not helpful for us.  But with the barriers and without a geography department or any one group willing to take owernership, we moved ahead. It was a team attitude to fill a need , fill the void, and never give up.  I can mention more later, but suffice it to say, we are now moving fast and growing !  

    As an FYI there are over 475 computers ready to go with ArcGis and three dedicated labs. We have four cool research entities now formed using GIS as a core, a certificate, and we have two minors in geography ( Human and physical, the cert. is a GIS minor of sorts).  And more is planned. No degree but we push our interdisciplinary PhD as the avenue for spatial research ( there have been a couple of student go that route and I have one now doing spatial research in epidemiology). All without a formal department.

    Ok, I admit. I am starting to brag, but I didnt always and I am careful to push for new areas and not get complacent    Right now, we have a plan in computing with visual analytics,  social media and our HCI lab people just chomping at the bit to dive into the deeper end. They understand spatial so isn’t hard to get going with them, but it is still loads of work.

    To the heart of your questions? Yes. For Spatial learning and research to reach full potential it must be in all areas and both very much it’s own field of experts ( hence our GIScience view) and with users and creators in everything from business to pharmacy ( and yea, I just edited a paper on campus for GIS and pharmacy! ).  We want it as normal as word processing. But we know we need skills and content based upon solid geography.

    Beyond that, my one failing thus far has been getting the campus “fixed” for a true spatial infrastructure. My colleagues at Calgary are doing more in that front as are many in the US. I have almost got our alumni people going, and marketing folks see it. But to win on a campus I think you need facilities management. Without that becoming a real GIS enterprise, with our sustainability people, we will not have reached the goal my assistant set for all if us to follow. Right now out effort is to re-do the campus as community map and story maps, and also push a fix for parking and sustainable transport. If we can show value for A GIS campus plan and infrastructure through those, then another part of a truly spatial education with exist. Most if all – in fact always number one rule ! – is having our saavy GIS students working on these projects.

    And I don’t want to sound trite here, but cudos to ESRI and the Ed team. It isn’t a company we try to work with on campus. It’s a common belief in the positive effects and potential of GIS that makes us work at it, and ESRI helps and has really made my life fun.  The business of software is one thing, but we have been given so much from the start of the libraries program to now that I have learned it isn’t busines, it is passion.

    So for the vision of putting GiS in libraries – where we started our push- hats off to jack, Prue Adler, Charlie Fitzpatrick and Angie Lee among others  A research and teaching Centre coordinating GiS on a campus based in the library? Now that has been super fun! It proves no one model fits! And let me some day tell you how a GIS library can end up teaching GIS in Vietnam for a few weeks. :-) .

    Apologies for a long post but I am iPhone-ing this on my way to the UC   Hope to pick up more in particulars along the way overnight and tomorrow on the plane.  And there are parts in here I can tease out in terms of things like pedagogy and curriculum development ( we do that too) and funding and organization battles. It isn’t all perfect or sweet :-) .

  3. Jonathan Wai says:

    Colleges and universities today already have departments—such as engineering—for students with spatial strengths. However, what many people don’t realize is that the students who have made it into and are thriving in these engineering departments do not just have strong spatial ability, but also had to have reasonable strengths in math and verbal ability. This is because the two major college entrance examinations—the SAT and ACT—focus primarily on math and verbal abilities and lack a spatial measure.

    However, there is a group of individuals who are left outside higher education’s gates because their strengths are primarily spatial rather than mathematical or verbal. In some of my research with my colleagues David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow, we used a stratified random sample of America’s high school population—Project TALENT—and demonstrated that a large fraction of the most spatially talented thinkers are not as mathematically and verbally talented. This is the group of students who would be well served by a university that focused on spatial thinking.

    I don’t think that colleges and universities necessarily undervalue spatial talents once the students arrive on the traditional campus because excellent engineering departments already exist. It’s just that many spatially talented students who are not as good with words or numbers have simply not made it onto campus. And this is likely due to the fact that their K-12 education has not been tailored to the way they think. In addition, because standardized tests throughout K-12 also do not include spatial measures, many of these students are not identified as talented students and hence their spatial talent likely goes underdeveloped.

    For students who are brilliant but whose talents are primarily in the spatial domain, perhaps a spatial university would be a place where they could connect with others like themselves. That is something that I would envision as a very positive aspect of a spatial university.

  4. David Uttal says:

    The author of the blog post notes one important reason why spatial technologies have yet to “catch on” and realize their potentially transformative influence: But this problem also underscores the path to a solution: Geospatial thinking and learning bring STEM (and other topics together). For example, consider how one might decide where to place a new wind farm. Performing this task well will require the integration of knowledge from several fields, including engineering, meteorology, geography, economics, and a host of other fields. Focusing on spatially-challenging tasks is thus one potential way to break down the silos in teaching and help students to think about different kinds of information fit together. These are the kinds of problems that we need to prepare current university students to think about and to solve, and representing them as problems of spatial distribution may be the best ways to help students see connections among different disciplines.

    Perhaps the easiest place to make these sorts of changes is in the first-year engineering curriculum. Many universities now stress a “design first” curriculum, where the process of thinking and acting like a “real” engineer is taught from the start. Focusing on spatial problems in these design courses might be a very good way to set in motion that kinds of transformation that we envision.

  5. Sarah Bednarz says:

    I might quibble that it is not just geospatial technologies but the context in which these technologies are used that might make a difference. By using inquiry and problem-based learning, teachers give learners opportunities to solve problems with a range of thinking strategies, including spatial thinking, and tools.

    But I want more justification for # 3 and #4 above to be convinced that these are key components of a spatial university. Another criteria I might suggest would have to do with the level of support with resources such as libraries, librarians, and curators of spatial data.

  6. Anthony Robinson says:

    I believe an important aspect of a Spatial University is that it should leverage emerging methods in both geospatial technology as well as in instructional design/distance education to expand the reach of research and education beyond the local scale of a campus to a wider world of potential learners and collaborators. This has proved to be a critically important area of growth for us at Penn State in terms of expanding the reach of spatial thinking beyond traditional physical spaces of instruction and research. To date we’ve had significant success in the instruction mission, but we have yet to develop substantial means for supporting graduate students to participate in geospatial research at a distance.

    Thinking ahead a few years, one can imagine Spatial Universities leading the way for distributed spatial learners to self-organize and collaborate. For example, it should be easier to connect an undergraduate working on a map design project with an alumnus who happens to hail from the same hometown. The spatial resources of a University ought to also include all spatially-adept alumni, who constitute a distributed network of spatial knowledge and practice that will have an impact far beyond the edges of campus itself.

  7. Diana Sinton says:

    It’s been suggested here that a “Spatial University” has five characteristics, spanning the areas of spatially-infused general education, spatially-based research activities, specialized geospatial curricula, community service activities that apply GIS, and the institutional operations and functions that leverage GIS functionality and support. These represent the most likely areas to find implementation of GIS, but will checking for an absence or presence of these activities be adequate? Shades of grey will be more common, and these will vary over space and time. We won’t find a one-size-fits-all template for a Spatial University.

    General education programs reflect the breadth of learning that is valued at an institution, such as courses in writing, quantitative reasoning, scientific inquiry, and understanding diverse cultures, among others. Such content is rarely contentious, and is largely familiar to educators from all backgrounds. For “spatial thinking” to reach this stage of recognition and value, we’ll need an arsenal of approaches to translate the ideas to an institutional community, including appreciating how geospatial technologies themselves can be entry ways to quantitative reasoning, scientific inquiry, and that understanding of diverse cultures. But awareness is the first step.

    The business of a university is education, and we must be able to assess what we teach and learn. What “metrics” could a Spatial University design and implement to measure their efforts and, hopefully, success? What does a “spatial thinking learning outcome” look like, and how would they vary across disciplines? Are standardized tools for assessment possible across diverse institutions?

    Lastly, learning patterns and habits of mind are strongly formed by the time students reach university ages. Spatial Universities are a bold and ambitious plan, and may support a nexus of clever, innovative, and inspired learning. Could that outcome be even greater enhanced if incoming students had been brought up as spatial thinkers and comfortable users of geospatial technologies? Should the ideas for a “K12 spatial charter school” be envisioned as well, or even first?

  8. John Wilson says:

    The vision of a “spatial” university is a lofty one because the core concepts are drawn from multiple disciplines and because of the need to blend the underlying science with the rapidly evolving technology. The field of geographic information science has grown enormously in the past couple of decades against a backdrop of rapid technological change and the deployment of geospatial solutions across government and the private and not-for-profit sectors. There has been a tremendous increase in our computational resources and Cloud Computing coupled with the Web and mobile devices now afford us the capacity to access these resources from almost anywhere. There has also been a tremendous growth in the number and variety of proprietary and open-source software solutions and there is now a much larger geospatial enterprise which supports many more applications and various efforts to build and distribute local, national, continental and global geospatial datasets.

    Whilst all of these developments have resulted in a much larger demand for spatial education, they also call for new forms of teaching and more nimble instructional programs. We should also take note of the fact that the world around us and our students are changing. Michael DeMers (2009, p. iii), for example, wrote in the preface to the fourth edition of his introductory GIS textbook that it was aimed at “students who are comfortable with e-mail and text messaging, digital file formats (mp3, mp4, jpeg), computer games and visualizations, and a host of other technologies that did not exist 10 years ago.”

    The tremendous gains afforded by these technological advances suggest the need to shift the attention of educators to the various ways in which they might establish and nurture multiple communities of GIS-savvy scholars. These individuals will likely bring a much greater diversity of interests, skills, and experiences than students did in the past and there will be a need to build a series of varied and effective pathways to support these different learning outcomes and styles. One possible path forward would be to invoke and use a geospatial framework where the overarching goal is to teach students about spatial analysis methods using geographic data so that they might use these approaches to advance knowledge in their own fields.

  9. Teresa Sikorski says:

    As a college student minoring in GIS and interested in the multi-disciplinary nature of spatial thinking (e.g. the combination of Meteorology and GIS, my major and minor), reading about the concept of a “Spatial University” is very exciting. Diana Sinton makes some good points, one of them being that there will exist varying shades of gray within the approach of Spatial Universities – it is within the nature of education to implement and experiment with different methods to achieve the same kind of goals of learning.

    Spatial thinking is something that spans across a variety of disciplines, some more apparent than others, and as such, I feel that a variety of methods should be considered to try and incorporate spatial thinking into a university environment; pharmacy students are going to understand and implement spatial thinking differently than psychology majors. Differences in students’ learning styles should also be considered. However, the challenge that is created by trying to translate the concept of spatial thinking across multiple learning platforms and disciplines is well worth the effort – it will not only encourage educators to collaborate and create new, innovative ways of understanding and viewing spatial ideas and applications, but also act as a new dimensional gateway for students to better understand the world we live in.

    Something else that was brought up was extending the Spatial University concept beyond the collegiate environment to earlier education. I feel that this would be a valuable platform from which to introduce students to spatial thinking, providing them with at least a basic understanding of the topic.  As Diana previously mentioned, whatever outcome created by Spatial Universities might be “enhanced if incoming students had been brought up as spatial thinkers and comfortable users of geospatial technologies”. It might not have to be as extensive as a charter school, but at least incorporating spatial thinking at a younger age through classes and activities will make the younger generation aware of its importance.

    What might be the first step of creating a Spatial University? Would it be something achieved through the creation of new universities, or would each university be allowed to implement it within its existing academic structure?

  10. Diana Sinton says:

    I agree with Sarah that I question criterion #3 on its own (an institution simply having a GIS certificate or degree program, aligned with workforce needs or not). I think that varies based on how integrated the program is with the rest of campus. What kinds of relationships and connections are there between the institution and the program? Do students work on projects about/for the university, like for operations/administration/facilities? Does a faculty member from Department X know about the program and would GIS students be able to work on a research project for her or him? Are there mechanisms in place to support those types of collaborations?

    I think those ways of “closing the loop” among the people and departments involved make a stronger case for when a program contributes overall to a “spatial university.”

  11. Joseph Kerski says:

    One of Tom’s valid points that has not yet been addressed but that has long perplexed me, is #4, about community-based service learning projects.  At the primary and secondary level, service learning has seen some traction, though budget/travel constraints and time preparing for exams always seem to trump widespread adoption.  In the informal education community such as Scouts and 4H, service learning has always been fairly prominent.  While some universities require internships and field experiences that can foster student contributions and connectedness to the community surrounding their campus or communities halfway around the world, I would like to see our GIS education community take leadership in promoting and fostering these experiences.  And I believe that this is the perfect time to do it.  

    Think about it:  We finally have the ability to do collaborative, real-time collection of data in the field in true citizen science mode; the ability to map that data using web-based GIS, and we can communicate its value to the community with a myriad of multimedia on a myriad of devices.  This is the kind of thing that doesn’t just excite the GIS community–it should engage our colleagues in sociology, anthropology, history, business, engineering, and in many other departments on campus.  An integration of geotechnologies and spatial thinking into service learning truly would lend a boost to the whole notion of the spatial university, in part because such work is so visible–to the general public, to university administration, and so on–that it would be difficult to ignore.

    I also believe that Tom’s #4 point can support point #5 about the enterprise GIS infrastructure.  For example, when Scott Sires’ students at Brookhaven College created their campus map, the campus safety staff, infrastructure personnel, and college president all became interested.  This, too, can be considered a community service learning project, because it is serving the campus community.  In fact, the students interviewed their peers, and the responses to their inquiries about would be the most useful items to have on the map were incorporated.  So, the students gained not only GIS skills, but those of interviewing and communications.  

    How can we leverage the power of GIS to encourage universities to support student participation in community-based service learning projects or internships?

  12. Phillip Davis says:

    Tom is absolutely correct on all 5 points.  The problem, by and large, is not the educators or lack of trying.  The core issue is getting the education policymakers to incorporate geography, geospatial technology, and spatial literacy into the core curriculum at all levels, K-25.  Until we get GIS a named general education skill/course, it’s going to be an uphill, frustrating battle to get GIS adopted more widely into education.

  13. George Dailey says:

    As everyone explores both the learning and learning environments of educational institutions, I think the 5th element in the typification of a spatial university or college is critical. Supportive learning spaces and places are part of the success of learning institutions and most epsecially the learners.

    Spatially enabled educational institutions also need to make use of geographic tools and thinking in their planning and operation. This topic was covered in a Spatial Roundtable earlier this year entitled GIS in Education: Beyond Instruction, http://www.spatialroundtable.com/post.cfm?entry=gis-in-education-beyond-instruction.

    Please explore that discussion, add to it and this one too.

  14. Eric Cromwell says:

    We need more discussion and vision about spatial thinking in the pK-12 arena rather than just the university level.  How can pK-12 develop spatial thinking within curriculum?  How does spatial thinking evolve developmentally?  I have a large school system ready to listen, but I need input from research.

  15. Lydia McLaughlin says:

    Hello All,

    I am getting ready for the second year of home schooling my gifted 8 year old son and 4 year old daughter.  I had an ah ha moment one day after watching a documentary on the story of 1 and looking at a math dictionary with my son and talking about binary numbers and him remembering the system from watching the documentary. I have come to the conclusion he is a spatial learner.  That being said I am still trying to figure out what the really means for his learning style.
    My question is how and what could I use in our curriculum to help his ability?  He told his principal in 1st grade he wanted to grow up and be a scientific engineer.  This year I have a lot of hands on science experiments coming his way and we are going to use a math called right start. He hates writing but loves taking things apart. My brother is going to teach him a program called python.  Any further suggestions for this future engineer would be appreciated.


  16. It’s been interesting for Tom and me to consider responses to our “Spatial University” vision, particularly from some of the most respected researchers in the field. Some of the comments prompt me to share our motivation for articulating the vision statement, and how that vision guides and informs our work at Esri.

    First I want to clarify what we mean by a “vision.” In the context of strategic planning, a vision is an ideal end-state whose characteristics are plausible, but not overly constrained by current conditions. From our point of view as members of Esri’s education team–whose mission is to cultivate the next generation of GIS users and spatial thinkers–the five characteristics are outward manifestations of what we consider to be an ideal higher education institution.

    I visit higher education institutions frequently as part of my job. I use the Spatial University vision as a kind of rubric to help me assess the presence and vigor of GIS and spatial thinking on campus, and especially to identify opportunities for Esri to help. For example, I often volunteer to help institutions design certificate and degree programs, to advise students and faculty members on career opportunities and workforce needs, and to discuss how Esri technology may be used to greater effect.

    As several commentators noted, each institution exhibits a unique mix of capabilities and potentials–its own “spatial signature” if you will. For example, it’s unreasonable to expect a community college to have a thriving interdisciplinary GIScience research program, or a research-oriented university to tailor its graduate education objectives solely to workforce needs. However, as we noted in the original post, many higher education institutions exhibit strengths in several of the five characteristics, and a few are strong in all five.

    Most important, the five characteristics are starting points for our conversations with students, faculty members and administrators–conversations that illuminate the inward manifestations of the Spatial University such as its philosophy of teaching and learning and the vitality of its communities of practice. To fulfill my team’s aspiration to be a trusted partner to education, we need to understand these distinctive institutional cultures and tailor our support accordingly.

    In general, to help colleges and universities realize the full value of enterprise GIS implementations, I believe we need to cultivate an enterprise conception of GIS and spatial thinking. The Spatial University vision is meant to catalyze that way of thinking.

  17. A spatial university makes use of spatial visualization and decision making at many levels, including the present and future direction of the physical nature the institution and its relation to the surrounding community.

    Here’s a great example that was described at the Esri User Conference in late July.

    Take a tour through a superb fusion of an Esri campus basemap with master planning at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. This plan explorer is also a great example of crowdsourcing of ideas and opinions about various campus assets and future directions from a range of stakeholders. http://bit.ly/OWECnX

  18. Ola Ahlqvist says:

    Many higher education institutions pledge commitment to three overarching missions: Research, Teaching and Service. Fulfilling the goal of a spatial university would probably have to infuse spatial thinking in all three missions, but the often neglected third mission -service- may be an area where the biggest benefits may be realized.

    Universities do interpret the service mission differently, but many institutions were founded on a strong commitment to serving society at large, not only through the research and education they produce, but also through direct and active service activities in their communities.

    How then can spatial thinking be a game-changer for the service mission? Clearly, there is potential for more spatial awareness and leveraging of geospatial technologies in specific service projects. GIS and mapping are very applied fields and lend themselves well to community activism such as participatory mapping, planing support, as an aid to help community residents find their voice and identify resources, and much more. There are many wonderful examples of this already happening but so much more could be done, in so many different ways, and with a lot more efficiency.

    In my past work with a service-learning cartography class (see http://geography.osu.edu/maps2serve/) I sometimes meet faculty colleagues that are already working in the same area, engaging their students in much needed service, such as a city and regional planning course developing possible neighborhood revitalization plans together with community residents, or a design course who bring students together with local youth to co-create an interior space.

    Now, in my role as service-learning director for the entire university, I see the myriad of collaborations between faculty, students and community organizations that happen in all of our colleges. From Nursing classes that provide much needed basic care in local senior homes, to Engineering students who help build basic infrastructure for an orphanage in Honduras, and anything in between. Unfortunately there is often little or no coordination of when and where these activities take place, either within our own university or between institutions.

    This is where spatial thinking could make an instrumental difference in identifying, coordinating, and streamlining community service activities so the full force of our universities could be put to work. My dream as a coordinator of service activities in a Spatial University would be a tool that acts as a Match.com of sorts, to connect partners in academia, government, and communities around identified needs, resources and solutions. This tool would have to be geospatial since matches need to consider what, where and when with analysis capabilities.

    A common geospatial platform would allow

    - Faculty, students, community residents to help connect identified needs with available resources.
    - Community groups to make their spatial presence known and find collaboration opportunities with other organizations including universities and local government.
    - Service-minded Universities to map out and manage existing service projects, identifying gaps to help initiate new projects, and identify overlaps for refocusing or creation of synergies between service activities, across institutional silos.

  19. purwanto purwanto says:

    I really like the GIS program in education. Currently, GIS has been taught in school, but to date the ability of teachers to understand the application of GIS is still very limited. This constraint is caused by many factors such as the price of expensive GIS software, the ability of teachers to a minimum, and various other obstacles.

    Today many teachers demand for GIS training, but when the standard GIS training material is too complex, so it appears pertayaan GIS applications can be simplified if needed specifically for primary education?
    I myself also want to raise dissertations related to the application of remote sensing and GIS for spatial development mindset. Maybe if there is literature related to the theme we need. Trimakasih.