Tag Archives: local

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

 

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Fieldwork: always have a plan B.

by Julie Peacock, University of Leeds

I updated the risk assessment for a second year field trip to Middlesmoor, Upper Nidderdale, early in the Academic Year, 2015/2016. I noted the comments, ‘In the event of extreme weather, the trip will not go ahead.’ I’ve seen and even written this on risk assessments many times, but I’d never needed to act on it.

We planned two, one day field trips with 81 second year students, one in early November followed by one in March.  This fieldwork is part of a larger skills module. The students work in groups to plan, then complete a research project focusing on Ecosystem Services. The first field trip, covers key techniques and familiarises students with the site. The second enables students to carry out their projects. In between these trips students work to prepare projects and present proposals to a panel of academic staff who provide feedback.

The second trip was to take place on a Friday. Monday brought a bleak weather forecast.  Students were emailed to remind them to bring suitable clothing and asked to review their field plans to ensure they could work efficiently even in poor weather conditions. On the Thursday, the landowner advised postponing because snow was forecast. We thought it was unlikely the weather would be that bad. Crucially, there was nowhere else in the timetable for the fieldtrip, considering availability of 81 students and six staff, not to mention re-booking the labs for student’s sample analysis.

I considered the options. What if one of the mini-buses got stuck? Would the students bring suitable kit for the weather? Yet, if we didn’t go how could the students complete their projects to meet learning outcomes given timetable inflexibility?

By the time I got into Leeds University at 7am on Friday, both the landowner and local farmer had called to say not to come.  Roads were shut and still it snowed. In some ways I was relieved; the decision was made, but what now for our fieldwork?

The campus at the University of Leeds is urban. Although significant work has been done to improve biodiversity and sustainability on campus, including a sustainability garden, it has no open ‘wild’ space. It is incomparable with Nidderdale! Nevertheless, urban ecosystem services are increasingly important as urban areas continue to expand.

By 7.30am an email had been sent advising students to meet in the department foyer. One lecturer wrote the risk assessment and gained necessary signatures; university estates had granted permission for soil sampling; two large teaching spaces were booked (fortunately, it was reading week); mini buses were cancelled and colleagues who were to meet us at Nidderdale were updated.

At 8am, the planned bus departure time, students were briefed. The trip to Nidderdale was cancelled, but they were to spend the next two to three hours re-planning their work to study ecosystem services on campus.  Inevitably, reactions were mixed, some students were glad (given the weather), others understandably disappointed not to be working on well-planned projects.

Students worked in their groups with academic staff mingling to discuss ideas. The VLE was populated with links to the University’s Biodiversity Action Plan, maps and useful literature. The field stores made a wide range of equipment available and taught students to use kit they hadn’t planned to use previously. Lab technicians made themselves available to talk to students wanting to undertake different analysis.

Changing the assessment brief was probably the hardest part. Students had worked hard on projects and were due to be assessed on a scientific report. Many would have started their literature reviews and methods. It was decided to ask students to review both Upland and Urban ecosystem services, writing up both methods, one where months of planning had taken place and one which had been planned rapidly.  Students found this brief hard given the unchanged word count to meet the advertised assessment. However, no alternative seemed ideal.

Field work was successful, despite the dreadful weather, with laying and falling snow, then heavy rain. Staff circulated to provide advice. A statistics expert stationed in the foyer answered questions.  Our students demonstrated resilience as they planned new projects. They showed they could work effectively under pressure, transferring learning about planning projects to a new situation. They learned in fieldwork too, Burns’ cliché holds that ‘the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley.’

This last minute change to fieldwork with such a large group of students couldn’t have worked without university staff’s teamwork and enthusiasm.  Students had a valuable learning experience, and we learned too.  In fieldwork planning is always key.  A contingency plan for extreme weather should occur.  Many HEIs have local areas which could be used.  Permissions for so-called ‘Plan B’ fieldwork could be gained, a risk assessment completed and students advised of the contingency plan including its impact on assessments, so if it is implemented it is not a shock. It’s useful to have a plan B and for the students to know it exists.

What have you done in similar situations? It would be interesting to hear.

 

With thanks to the following for making the changes work on the day: Karen Bacon, Janet Chapman, Dom Emery, Rachel Gasior, Rachel Homer, Jamie Mullen, Graeme Swindles, Clare Woulds and others who added useful documents to the VLE over subsequent days.

 

What’s going on? Secondary school teachers’ response to the geography national curriculum

By Mary Biddulph (University of Nottingham), Senior Vice-President of the Geographical Association.

This contribution to the GEES blog concerns the teaching and learning of geography in schools. It is based on a conference session hosted by HERG at the 2015 RGS Annual Conference entitled: ‘The impacts of recent policy changes to the school geography curriculum: policy, processes and subject knowledge’. To put this session into context, curriculum change is now well-underway in schools in England: since 2014 a new national curriculum has been introduced in primary and secondary schools and currently secondary school geography departments are now considering which of the reformed GCSE and A levels specifications to teach from 2016.

Curriculum change inevitably generates debate, and the recent changes have certainly caused the geography education community to ask the question: What kind of geography(ies) should be taught to young people? The ‘what’ of geographical learning came under scrutiny following the publication of the 2010 White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’. In the White Paper the then coalition government proclaimed that a return to rigour in leaning could only be achieved via a return to the “core of essential knowledge” of subjects. The White Paper made no attempt to define these terms, but political rhetoric at the time left the geography subject community concerned that we were on the cusp of a return to a content heavy, gazetteer-type curriculum which would be dense with facts but strangely short on conceptual discipline. The Department for Education and education Ministers appeared to exert considerable political influence over the curriculum changes, and when finally published the 2014 national curriculum was a significant departure from the concept-led framework of its predecessor. Emphasising locational knowledge, regional study, traditional human and physical themes and making no explicit mention of geographical enquiry, the 2014 curriculum could be said to stress the ‘what’ of geography: what teachers need to teach, with rather less emphasis on what sense we expect children to make of this.

Conversations with geography teachers reveal that despite curriculum prescription, teachers remain committed to creating curriculum experiences for pupils that are engaging, interesting and enjoyable to learn.  Teachers I have talked to in recent months see geography’s role in the broader educational endeavour as a moral one as well as an intellectual one. They are clear that learning geography provides structures (using geographical concepts) that allow students carefully and critically to examine important local, national and international themes. Themes such as European migration, climate change, national and international poverty and social inequalities are, they feel, central to teaching geography. They believe that they have a responsibility to raise important cultural, social, ethical and ecological questions with students and that school geography has a role to play in helping young people think about and engage with the world around them.

Some teachers express misgivings about the new level of prescription in part because many have received no subject-specific professional development in the last 5 years. They acknowledge that they feel less than confident to teach ‘new’ content such as soils, Russia, glaciation and geological timescales and in addition, some are frustrated that making way for new content is at the expense of topics and themes they feel are important and that their students enjoy. An further concern is that accommodating the new content may yet produce a shift in pedagogical approaches, away from more open-ended enquiry-led and discussion based learning to what is sometimes anachronistically labelled ‘chalk and talk’ (enabled these days by powerpoint!). Some teachers fear that an over-emphasis on content could jeopardise more critical pedagogies.

The curriculum changes described above are of some significance for colleagues in higher education. For most students entering higher education, the foundations of their geographical learning and their enthusiasm for the subject are laid down by their school experiences. However, if we accept that the role of school education is not just to serve as a preparation ground for a university degree, there is a deeper significance for higher education. It could be argued that providing all young people with an intellectual framework to help them make sense of super-complex world issues is the hall mark of an effective education – at any level. For geography to fulfil its educational potential, this implies the need for a closer relationship between school and university geography so that the ever-changing ‘what and the how’ of the discipline can serve to support more meaningful and better informed curriculum change in schools.

Bright Futures

By Cherish Watton (History student, Cambridge)

From the 1st to the 4th September 2015, the Royal Geographical Society ran their annual international conference programme, this year entitled ‘Geographies of the Anthropocence’. As part of this, I had the great pleasure of presenting on the Bright Futures a programme, a 2½-day residential held at Holt Hall Environmental and Outdoor Learning Centre in Norfolk. The programme, aimed at high school and college students, focuses on energy education and real-life consultancy opportunities offered by Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm. This case study was one of five presentations on university engagement with issues of community and sustainability in a session sponsored by the Higher Educational Research and chaired by Rebecca Farnum, PhD researcher at King’s College London

The session focused on thought-provoking discussions around how individuals personally react to issues surrounding international research, volunteering and climate change. This was highlighted particularly by Marisa Goulden (University of East Anglia) in her paper on transformational learning and supporting students to be agents of change. Marisa’s presentation raised the issue that university staff and students alike are encouraged to emotionally detach themselves whilst undertaking and studying what is frequently depressing work. It is largely expected by academia that individuals ‘keep calm and carry on’, but this is easier said then done and needs greater consideration. Marisa highlighted the benefits of supporting individuals to enable them to come to terms with their experiences, and utilise these productively, yet sensitively, to bring about a change in values.

The discussion called to my mind a particular moment on the Bright Futures programme where personal responses to climate change are particularly evident amongst the high school participants. Using the “Best Foot Forward” carbon footprinting cards, they are asked a series of questions regarding their lifestyles (on transport, consumption, and the like). Each response is given a score and students tally up their numbers to get a total that links to the number of ‘Earths’ that would be required if everyone lived as they do. Most Norfolk high school and college students learn they use the equivalent of 2 or 3 Earths. At this point, we see visible signs of consternation, regret, confusion, and reflection, as students’ impact on the Earth is brought home in a pertinent way. After being given time for reflection, we encourage students to look at what small actions they could take to improve matters, starting with their individual lifestyles and then considering actions within their homes and schools. Recognising and acting on this reality is one of the first activities on the programme, inspiring change from personal responsibility and conviction. As Marisa emphasised, we can not shy away from discomfort: sometimes this is what is needed in order to change. It should, however, be carefully facilitated.

The session also raised questions about scaling up. How do the successful case studies in one or two departments begin to transform the entirety of the university system? A presentation from Kate Baker (King’s College London) on the Intrepid Explorers model demonstrated the significant impact of a student-run group in sharing learning and experiences from field research over a variety of disciplines. Oriel Kenny and Su Robinson (Leeds Beckett University) highlighted the diverse opportunities offered to university students to participate in volunteering as part of their university experience, particularly in the Politics and Applied Global Ethics programme that requires volunteering as part of its degree. The key message from presenters, as introduced by keynote Professor Tim O’Riordan (University of East Anglia), was the need for collaboration above all. The projects presented are united by their multi-disciplinary approach to bringing together groups and individuals. Bright Futures’ multi-tiered mentoring makes use of the connections between high school students from both Norfolk and Norway, university students from the University of East Anglia, Marshall Scholar postgraduate and PhD students, and local businesses and charities. Mentoring takes place at every level, enabling everybody to learn with, and from, each other in a supportive and inspiring environment.

All of these programmes develop the universal skills and confidences needed to tackle sustainability – teamwork, communication, leadership and collaboration. At the heart of these experiences is the aim of, and need for, equipping the next generation to adapt and be creative. This is central to the Bright Futures programme, whether it is via team building activities in the shape of cheerleading rock, paper, scissors or young people presenting on the impacts of climate change and how they want to reduce energy usage back in their schools. Young people are eager to seize these opportunities. It is the responsibility of the university and ourselves to provide and link up opportunities in the emerging green economy so young people feel equipped to deal with the challenges of tomorrow. In the words of a recent participant: “I think that this is a valuable experience that should be offered to more pupils; when we become adults sustainability will be our problem, and it’s important that we have the chance to understand it more now.”

To read a dialogue between Rebecca Farnum and Cherish Watton on the thinking behind Bright Futures, please visit https://beyond2015.acu.ac.uk/submissions/view?id=123

To view the Prezi presentation given in the session, please go to https://prezi.com/flmwmjsgvicq/bright-futures-presentation-september-2015/

 

For more information about the Bright Futures programme, visit their website at http://brightfuturesnorfolk.wordpress.com/

Cherish Watton

 

Cherish Watton is currently in her second year studying History at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Before studying, Cherish set up in a business, working as an eco-consultant and social entrepreneur for Cherish Watton Enterprises in Norfolk. Her work has focused on running environmental residentials, evaluating programmes and developing opportunities for young people to seize the potential of the Green Economy based upon their interests, passions and experiences with environmental issues at school and college. Cherish also founded and runs http://www.womenslandarmy.co.uk, a website on the work of the British Women’s Land Army during World War One and Two. Cherish is developing the website so it becomes the national online hub for information on the Land Girls and Lumber Jills – sharing original documents, magazines, photos and videos.

 

 

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.