Category Archives: 3rd year

Teaching Spatial Thinking with Abductive Reasoning

By Joseph J. Kerski, University of Denver and Esri.

 

Abductive reasoning (also called abduction, abductive inference or retroduction) is a form of logical inference that goes from an observation to a hypothesis that accounts for the observation. It ideally seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation. In abductive reasoning, unlike in deductive reasoning, the premises do not guarantee the conclusion. One can understand abductive reasoning as “inference to the best explanation”.  The fields of law, computer science, and artificial intelligence research have renewed interest in the subject of abduction.

 

Abductive reasoning can be effectively taught through spatial thinking and analysis with the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology and methods.  Through the overlaying, swiping, and display of maps and imagery in a GIS, students are encouraged to make observations about the patterns, relationships, and trends, or lack of pattern.  They can then form a hypothesis about why the pattern exists and how it came to be.  They can then test that hypothesis against the data, by running a set of spatial statistical techniques, by testing different models, by symbolizing and classifying the data in different ways, and by examining different regions of the world at different scales, testing whether the relationship holds in all regions and scales, or just some.

All of this is what I find most valuable about teaching with GIS–it is one of those few tools that allow for inquiry, investigation, hypothesis testing, changing the variable(s) analyzed, all in one environment.  In fact, GIS was created to be that very thing—a toolset that would allow problem solving and investigation.  I like to think of GIS as a means of enabling students to investigate the “whys of where”.  These investigations can occur at the local level, where hypotheses could include “Food stores in my community will be geographically dispersed, while antique shops will be more geographically clustered, “ or, “There is a positive correlation between median age and median income in my community.”   But the questions can be in an optimal location style, such as, “Where is the best location for an urban greenway in my community?” These questions can occur at the regional scale, such as “How have the land use patterns changed in the past 25 years, where have they changed, and why?” and at the global scale, such as “What is the pattern of earthquake depth and magnitude in close proximity to plate boundaries?  What is the relationship between birth rate and life expectancy, by country, and what is reason for the patterns that I see?”

As we begin examining the data, I find that it is best if the students give a hypothesis. In one of the examples above, I ask students to state what they hypothesize the pattern of global earthquake magnitude related to the major types of plate boundaries to be, and then do the same thing with global earthquake depth. I also ask them to state why they stated their hypothesis that way. What components of past geographic knowledge are they bringing to bear on their hypothesis, or are they truly “in the dark” about this specific type of spatial relationship without prior knowledge?

With today’s web-based GIS tools, students can visualize and analyze real-world phenomena in 2D and 3D, and increasingly in real time.  They can collect their own data with smartphone apps with their own equipment and then map and analyze that data.  They can communicate their results with web mapping tools such as multimedia story maps and share these maps with others.  I find that students think holistically about problem solving through the use of these tools.  Through these web based GIS investigations, students also must deal with issues such as data quality, data volume, scale, location privacy, crowdsourcing, and the proper use and citation of web images and data.  They must also think about which maps that they should share with the public, which maps they should share with a smaller group such as their own research colleagues or classmates, and which maps they should not share at all.

Consider this example that I have taught with many times from secondary school to university level.  After examining the types of crops grown in the USA, and after conducting research on the type of climate and the amount of precipitation that is required for cotton, students hypothesize about where cotton will be grown.  They then observe the pattern of cotton production on an interactive web map.  They note that their hypothesis was confirmed, at least in part:  Cotton exhibits a southerly pattern:  Thus, latitude does matter.  But although some of these southerly areas receive enough precipitation, others are semiarid.  How can cotton be grown in these semiarid regions?  After further investigation, students discover that irrigation from river diversion makes cotton production possible in southern Arizona and irrigation from deep groundwater extraction makes cotton production possible in west Texas.   Students then begin to ask, “Should cotton be grown in these semiarid areas?  Is this the best use of natural resources?”  At this point, the students, not me, are driving the inquiry. In the best spirit of geographic inquiry, student investigations lead to additional questions, and the investigation continues using the web maps as one of the tools of study.  Thus, the map layers and the GIS tools are means by which the students investigate the issues.  The maps are not used merely to find “where” but help students understand the “whys of where.”  And they help move students forward in their thinking from “what are past and current patterns” on to “what would be the best plan in the future for this community, region, country, or global phenomena.”  Thus they use the tools to envision a better and more sustainable future.

Consider another example below from a GIS-based investigation:  Say after observing the map of ecoregions and population density that I created online, that the student’s hypothesis is that the savanna regime division is generally characterized by higher population densities in the region of East Africa.  Then, students investigate such questions as:  “Does the savanna suffer from biodiversity loss to a greater degree than less populous ecoregions?  What are other factors that can help explain the pattern of population density in this area? Is it topography, water availability, proximity to roads, agricultural production, or some other reason?  If I zoom in to a larger scale, does the population density remain higher in the savanna than other ecoregions at that larger scale?  Why or why not?  What are the long term implications for the ecoregions in this area?  How do these patterns compare to those in other regions, including the region in which I live?  How can I use what I have learned to make wiser decisions about land use and ecoregions in the future?”

How have you used hypothesis testing and abductive reasoning in your own teaching or your own research?

kerski

 

“Bring in the Graduates” – alumni contributions to HE T&L

By James Derounian (University of Gloucestershire)

As the Times Higher Education put it (2016 online) the “teaching excellence framework will see the government monitoring and assessing the quality of teaching in England’s universities.”  Good. It is high time that teaching and research excellence were given parity of scrutiny, importance and reward.

And the UK Government’s Department for Education (2016 online: 19) – in its Teaching Excellence Framework: year two specification argues for Student Outcomes and Learning Gain that are focused on the “acquisition of attributes such as lifelong learning skills and others that allow a graduate to make a strong contribution to society, economy and the environment”.

But how will our undergraduates (and then postgrads) magically gain such skills, capabilities and propensities? Why…….from their forebears! What we need is graduate re-cycling in terms of (recent) Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences graduates from particular HE institutions being encouraged to return to their alma mater, in order to offer specialist guest lectures, live projects for assignments, work shadowing; internships; input on how to make the progression from study and university into the world of work. It’s not rocket science, and costs little – but usually just requires a bit of care & time.

In my experience, graduates are flattered and only too pleased to be asked to return to the scene of their earlier escapades! And, of course, (recent) graduates can empathise, since they remember what it was like to be an undergraduate, but they can also provide insight, distance and practical wisdom as to how students may amplify their chances of getting into work (linked to their discipline), and to – hopefully – lead fulfilling lives. Those who have gone before can also connect across from the head knowledge of the classroom to what this means in practice.

So, for example, I have built up medium term relationships with graduates who are also employers close to the campus. In this way the Cheltenham West End Regeneration Partnership (a limited community-based company) has taken tens of my internship students over time, who have each completed 80 hours research and activity towards a discreet project. So geographers have completed door-knocking and research in order to gauge resident concerns and possible remedial actions; others have assisted with bringing fund-raising events to fruition; produced a sustainability appraisal for a microbrewery, indicating ways in which the business can operate more profitably and sustainably. The list goes on.

So how do you increase the likelihood that your graduates’ contributions back into teaching and learning are purposeful – to them and the students on the receiving end?

Here are my suggested ‘top ten tips’:

  1. Select your graduates carefully! Can they communicate (with students?)
  2. Brief them so that they know exactly what you want them to do, for how long, to whom (e.g. level 5 human geographers); how many, where and when?
  3. Make clear the ‘deal’ e.g. will you pay their travel expenses? A fee? Or informally get them a book token as thanks; and/ or buy them lunch?
  4. (As a courtesy) and to ensure smooth-running, be sure to attend the session, and be prepared to steer / prompt questions from the class etc……don’t just abandon them to the ravening wolves!
  5. Ensure that the graduate session fits into the academic coherence and running order of your module and contact sessions.
  6. Prepare the students by ‘flagging’ – several weeks in advance – that on a particular date/ class a graduate will be contributing, and how this will benefit students (and their assignment preparation!); twist their arms to attend! It is excruciating if a grad turns up and only half the class is there; most embarrassing all round
  7. Give plenty of notice to a would-be graduate contributor…..e.g. at least 2 or 3 months, so they can prepare, clear attendance with their boss, book time off etc.
  8. DO ask for their PowerPoint etc materials to ‘capture’ and make available on your VLE (Moodle, Blackboard etc.)
  9. DO thank them verbally & by e-mail….in fact line up a student to do this. Get them to ‘own’ and take responsibility – if they have to make a vote of thanks then at least they will listen carefully!
  10. Offer something in return to the graduate – job references? Comment on an application etc: Something for something.

It’s also delightful to network with graduates – discovering where their careers and lives have led them since they too were in your classroom. It’s such a simple, cheap, effective, empathetic means of benefitting your teaching and learning, your students and graduates. What’s not to like?

References

Derounian, J. (2015) Why does the devil have all the good tunes? How researchers continue to put one over teachers in the HE promotion stakes; British Educational Research Association, May 5 online. Available at https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/why-does-the-devil-have-all-the-good-tunes-how-researchers-continue-to-put-one-over-teachers-in-the-he-promotion-stakes  [Accessed 7.10.2016]

HM Government, Department for Education (2016) Policy paper: TEF Factsheet; Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/550232/Teaching-excellence-framework-factsheet.pdf  [Accessed 7.10.2016]

HM Government, Department for Education (2016) Teaching Excellence Framework: year two specification; Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/556355/TEF_Year_2_specification.pdf  [Accessed 7.10.2016]

House of Commons, Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (2016) The Teaching Excellence Framework: Assessing quality in Higher Education; Available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmbis/572/572.pdf [Accessed 7.10.2016]

McGhee, P. (2016) Will the Teaching Excellence Framework be a licence for universities to raise fees, Independent 22.8.2016. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/aug/22/teaching-excellence-framework-universities-tuition-fees-tef  [Accessed 10.10.2016]

Oakeshott, M. (1950) The idea of a university, The Listener magazine, 23-30; Available at https://www.msudenver.edu/media/content/facultyevaltaskforce/sources/oakeshotttheideaofauniversity.pdf [Accessed 8.10.2016]

 

A tale of two cities: urban regeneration in Reading and Luton.

By Alina Congreve (University of Hertfordshire)

When I started work at Reading University, I took over the urban regeneration module that urgently needed refreshing. Coursework involved students writing essays to answer questions such as ‘Shall we build the channel tunnel rail link?’. The course was run twice with quite small numbers, in one term for third-year undergraduate students and in the other for MSc students. Most of the students who selected the option did so because it had a reputation for being easy. I took a decisions to run the module once and run it well, combining the third-year and MSc groups.

In trying to design new, engaging coursework I set up a meeting with the head of regeneration at the Borough Council. After a very shaky start to our meeting he mentioned two projects that he was thinking of paying commercial consultants to do with a budget of about £30,000. I offered to do them both for £7,000 with my students. The projects involved students working in two low-income neighbourhoods, collecting information and ideas from local residents to support neighbourhood plans. Once someone is paying you for work you have to do it, so I used the money to pay a regeneration practitioner to mentor the students. They were expected to complete stages of work by set milestones and the regeneration practitioner met with them several times as they reported back on progress.

Community facilities at Amersham Road

The students worked in teams and when in the community they were always in groups of two or more. Within their teams they had their own specific brief, to minimize the risk of a student free riding on others efforts. Students liked the combination of team-work and individual effort being rewarded. They learnt a lot about young people in those neighbourhoods who had very different experiences from them, including those who had turned down training and apprenticeship because their family needed them to earn money. They ran focus groups, talking to older people who travelled into the city centre to get groceries because they were intimidated at their local shopping parade with fears about their safety.

TwoCities image

The students identified the way youth provision did not cater for 8-12 year olds, leading to them being drawn into trouble at an early age. They also provided innovative solutions and came up with fresh ideas to draw in private sector support. They approached large Reading based employers based in the town and suggested schemes where staff working in IT could volunteer one day a month to help older residents improve their skills. They also suggested improved timings to local bus services so residents were not so cut off from employment. These were were taken up by the bus operator. Students presented their findings at the end of the module to the Council and community representatives.

Starting at Hertfordshire with a new MSc planning course, only a small number of students signed up to the regeneration optional module. Concerned the group was too small for the students to have a good learning experience, I approached a colleague who ran the Tourism and Hospitality Management MSc After some discussion she allowed the regeneration module as an option on her programme. It took time to build up contacts and networks that I had developed at Reading. Hatfield has been subject to an excessive number of student projects that have added little value to the problems of the town. Looking a bit further afield I heard about the work of Luton Culture, a third sector organization that runs that arts, museums and community facilities. In the town centre an arts venue, the library theatre, had been almost unused for 18 months. There were ambitious plans to re-open the venue with a lively programme of theatre, comedy and music. There were a number of ideas Luton Culture staff would like to explore, but were stretched for time. These included: creating links between users of the library and the theatre; introducing a loyalty card; working with schools; and creating a volunteering programme for young people. The students carried out desk research and contacted other arts venues by phone and email. Whilst half the lecture content was delivered by a regeneration practitioner and half by me, there was no budget this time for practitioner mentoring. With the smaller group (15 students) this was feasible but it would be much more challenging with two or three times that number.

A key feature to the success of both projects was the commitment and support of staff at Reading Borough Council and Luton Culture. They were able to provide information, contacts and other practical support, such as local venues for meetings, that meant the students could get off to a quick start. They also provided an enthusiastic audience for the students work, ensuring that their first experience of delivering work to a client was a positive one.

So, was is the benefit for the University? Or to put it another way, how can you persuade your head of department you should be spending time on this? A key hook is positive local press coverage. In many university towns there is a lot of negative publicity about students, often focused on rowdy behavior and untidy front gardens. To have a story in the local media about students making a positive contribution to the town can start to change that. Some universities have community awards for students who make a significant contribution to the community, and winning or being shortlisted for awards is good for the department. Professional bodies are keen for both staff and students to be engaged with real world problems and this type of project can provide evidence of that engagement. From a personal point of view it can also help your own career development, engaging with senior figures in local government and giving interviews to the media.

So what are the challenges? Surprisingly, few come from the students. A few students are initially skeptical, but this can be largely overcome if you open the module in the right way. This is going to be challenging but it is going to be interesting and it will look great on your CV. One challenge is time pressure, and while English universities have professional staff whose role includes engagement or work placements, the scope varies widely. You will get very different levels of practical assistance depending on where you are. Local authority budget cuts have put pressure on funds and getting even small amounts of money to pay for additional support is more challenging than five years ago. The biggest barrier I currently face is the university ethics procedures. This can take 6-8 weeks for even a simple questionnaire or focus group with residents to be approved. As a result I have had to adapt so that the projects are carried out without the need for ethics approval. We still have quite a bit to learn in making these kind of projects a regular part of students learning rather than the exception.