Enhancing General Education with Geographic Information Science and Spatial Literacy

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GENERAL EDUCATION: THE CONSCIENCE OF HIGHER EDUCATION

In his 1988 book, The Meaning of General Education: The Emergence of a Curriculum Paradigm, Gary Miller defines general education as "... the conscience of higher education, the part of a university that is concerned most directly with the individual student's responsibility to society at large" (Miller 1988, 2). After a series of historical events (including the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, and World War II), a new paradigm in higher education began to develop in the United States and all around the world. Offering a comprehensive general education (GE) core curriculum supposedly would provide students with a fuller realization of democracy, a sustainable learning environment, and a global understanding of and cooperation with mankind (Kennedy 1952). As Miller noted (1988, 5),

   General education is [a] comprehensive, self-consciously
   developed and maintained program that develops in individual
   students the attitude of inquiry; the skills of problem
   solving; the individual and community values associated
   with a democratic society; and the knowledge needed to
   apply these attitudes, skills, and values so that the students
   may maintain the learning process over a lifetime and function
   as self-fulfilled individuals and as full participants in a
   society committed to change through democratic processes.

Ultimately, general education provides students with the opportunity to improve their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, while advancing their fundamental knowledge of the arts, sciences, and technologies. Rather than providing professional career development or a discipline (major) requirement, GE courses were put in place to ensure a well-rounded undergraduate education. The breadth of the GE curriculum traditionally has included courses in literature, language arts, science, and humanities. However, as technological trends impact discoveries and creative works in the sciences as well as the humanities, the GE curriculum must adapt accordingly. In the recent Trends and Emerging Practices in General Education survey (Hart Research Associates 2009, 5), industry leaders and business executives determined that they would like to see colleges and universities place greater emphasis on the following topics in general education:

1. Science and technology (82 percent: should place more emphasis),

2. Applied knowledge in real-world settings through internships and other hands-on experiences (73 percent),

3. Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills (73 percent),

4. Communication skills (73 percent), and

5. Global issues (72 percent).

In addition, recent studies in general education indicate that quantitative reasoning skill requirements are becoming more and more important in doctoral-granting universities (e.g., Bourke et al. 2009). This leads us to consider the potential role of geographic information science and technology (GIS&T) in helping to develop such skills at the GE level.

The discipline of geography traditionally has provided several popular GE courses that seemingly meet many of the requests noted in the Hart report (Harper 1982). For example, physical geography introduces students to earth systems, including physical and anthropogenic factors that shape their world. Human geography looks deeper into patterns of human activities in a range of scales. Although many geography courses cultivate spatial awareness, and consider topics that address aspects of the Hart report, few of them specifically emphasize quantitative problem solving or technology. We believe that a GE-level GIS&T class could serve as a vehicle for advancing spatial literacy as well as quantitative problem-solving skills.

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The content of a GIS&T course can cover all five of the major topics noted in the Hart report. …