LND 201 : Geographic Information Systems


Eric Darsow


Spring 2017


412-923-9907 (Cell)

Office Hours:

Tuesdays from 4-6pm

E-Mail Address:

Office Location:

Adjunct Offices, 2 nd floor, near CIT faculty : Call Eric 412 923 9907 for room # if not posted here

Class Section(s): WH32

Time & Location: Tuesdays from 6-9:10 pm in North Campus, Room 1140

Course Number: Land Management 201

Course Title: Geographic Information Systems

Course Credits: 3.0                 Lecture hours: 3        

Prerequisite(s): None                                         Corequisite(s): None        

Course Description:

Maps are extremely handy tools: by scaling life-sized features and creating a representation of that three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional surface, we have a created a model of the world we can use for convenient navigation, analysis, and decision making.

This course will develop our skills in service of making maps tools for professionals who make decisions and for the public who are in need of clear information. Using ESRI’s ArcMap software suite, students will learn about how to prepare data for map making, plot points correctly in 2D-space, symbolize the map to emphasize the most important features, and communicate the content of the map to others.

To accomplish this process with confidence, the course will also introduce and support students learning the basics of database technology on which ArcMap runs in addition to learning essential concepts in file storage, packaging, reading, and sharing.

Finally, with the Internet’s vast reach, essential components of web-based mapping will be explored, both using ESRI’s online interface as well as comparable on-line mapping resources such as, MapBox, and CMU’s CREATE Lab services.

Learning Outcomes:

  1. 1. Develop an authentic interest in map making principles and skills by applying maps to interesting topics and problems.  

  2. 2. Cultivate a command of the core elements of ESRI’s ArcMap software : Importing data, joining and preparing data, projecting features, symbology, analysis, and presentation.  

  3. 3. Develop a habit of taking baby steps to solving larger problems. Break big things down to manageable chunks.  

  4. 4. Learn to use documentation and help sites to solve complicated mapping problems.  

  5. 5. D evelop a familiarity with the range of mapping software and tools beyond ESRI products such that students can choose from a set of tools to solve geospatial problems in the future.  

Materials and Resources:                            

Required Text(s):

GIS Tutorial: Basic Workbook for ArcGIS 10.3.x by Gorr and Kurland. This text includes a CD with ArcMap included along with a 1-year, one user license for the software (a very expensive thing).

Even without the text itself, you can download a really big file with all the exercise raw material from the ESRI Press site directly. Use the "click here" link under "resources" to downlad the .exe file. ESRI is very strict about their data so they won't let you just download the files--it must install.

Required Materials:

A ccess to a computer with ESRI ArcMap 10.3.x installed.

Recommended Text(s):

I highly recommend supplementing the Gorr and Kurland text with supplemental explanatory material relating to maps and map making ESRI’s website has many introductory and explanatory tutorials to work through. The core documentation portal for ArcGIS Desktop is a wealth of how-to information as well as tutorial like descriptions of key mapping concepts.

Audio-Visual Materials:

As assigned

Directed Study:

None assigned

Open Lab, Tutoring, etc.

I’m happy to provide individual tutoring on an as-needed basis throughout the term. Please talk to me before or after class to make arrangements.


Course Philosophy:

Map making involves technical skills as well as a keen analytical sense : data must be cleaned, loaded, and joined , and map makers must also analyze the data to gain insight into the stories it tells . This course is designed to balance the development of these two skills sets together such that students are advancing their command of both aspects throughout the course. Hands-on experience with both data manipulation and analysis (rather than lecture) will form the core of the instructional practice for this course .

These two types of skills will be learned by practicing map making, reflecting on the choices we make during that creation process, and then editing our work to make it stronger. Collaboration is always allowed and encouraged. Smart use of outside resources is also encouraged and will be supported.

Teaching Methods:

My approach to teaching a computer skills (mapping can be thought of a language with vocabulary and grammar) will be drawn from the best practices of teaching human languages. Most importantly, this involves consistent practice of the language at an appropriate level of rigor—which is incrementally increased as learning progresses.

Most folks would agree that if one were learning Spanish, listening to an hour-long slide deck-based lecture in English about the Spanish language would not be very useful. Our mapping class will also not involve much (if any) traditional lecture. Slide decks (i.e. “Powerpoints”) will be used minimally and mostly for displaying key concepts compactly and not as a crutch for a lecture.

Stated more directly, to learn mapping well l, we should be making maps of different kinds as possible. To accomplish this, class time will generally unfold as follows:

  1. 1. Warm-up mapping or visualizing exercise: get the brain thinking “in mapping” by solving a small mapping problem using skills that should already be familiar.  

  2. 2. Introduction to new content and skills through group exercises.  

  3. 3. Guided map-making practice: students will be provided with an incrementally more challenging task the requires use of the new skill or concept. Teacher will guide students along the path.  

  4. 4. Independent and/or group application of skills. The teacher “lets the students loose” to work on a manageable but challenging project that applies the new skill. Students help one another and the teacher supports or reteaches as necessary.  

Anticipated weekly time required:

Please plan on devoting the following amounts of time to the course:

Class pre-work: 1 hour

In-class sessions: 3 hours , once a week

Homework: 2.5-5 hours (variable depending on student learning styles and engagement)

Total: ~7-8 hours

If you find you are working diligently and cannot complete the week’s work in 6-8 hours, please schedule time to meet with me and we can troubleshoot through your practice process.

Evaluation Plan:

The following component weightings are meant to convey relative weights given to various learning activities that make up this course. For example, class engagement is weighted at 45% and homework at 25%. This can be interpreted to mean that class engagement is designed to be about twice as “impactful” on student learning as homework.



Class Attendance and Engagement

14 class sessions + final period

4 0 %


About ten assignments @ 2.5% each

2 0 %


Two formative checkpoints @ 5% each and one final checkpoint @ 5%


Culminating Project

Proposed by student, hopefully with a specific client to serve.

2 0%



Class Engagement:

Class time is a core experience of this course and has the most impact on students' final grade in the course.

Each class session is approximately three hours long and will follow the structure outlined in the Teaching Methods section of this syllabus. Restated here: class opens with a warm-up, then we do a group coding exercise with explanation of the new concept, students practice the concept with the teacher as a guide, and then students practice the concept independently with the teacher as a support as needed.

What qualifies as engagement? At the base level, class engagement involves:


You are expected to attend all or nearly all class sessions! The core learning of this class will happen in class; this is not a “flipped class” where you are expected to learn on your own outside of class and only practice in class. Come to class .

Students who attend most if not all class sessions have a much higher chance of developing a command of mapping than those who miss lots of class and attempt to push through the material on their own. Such students often fall behind the learning schedule and are not keeping pace with their peers, meaning they are unprepared for check-points and cannot help other students with their learning along the way.

Making up missed classes:

Please email me before a class session that you are going to miss, or if something unexpected happened, please email me as soon after the missed class as you can. My goal is to provide support to each student in my classes, and knowing if students will be missing class will help me support make-up tasks as best I can.

Of course, life involves more than this GIS class so absences are expected . Resources exist on the course website for you to work through the exercises completed in class on your own before the next class session. It is each students’ own responsibility to find the class session plan on the course website if a class is missed, work through the exercises, and email the professor any and all code written and questions answered during the make-up time.

A make-up email should be structured like this:

  1. 1. Date of class session missed  

  2. 2. Files relevant to the maps you made zipped together in a *.zip file.  

  3. 3. The total number of minutes you spent on your make-up work  

  4. 4. A list of one or more questions or concepts that were unclear in your independent learning so I can help fill in any gaps.  

When determining a student’s attendance grade (See Evaluation Plan and Grade Determination in this syllabus), students who have have 1 or fewer absences over the course of the semester will be considered to have had “full attendance”. Students with 3 or more absences may be in danger of not earning credit for the course. Since this is a once-a-week class, missing even one class is akin to missing 2 periods in a day-time section. Big deal!

Attendance will be taken each class period and reported to CCAC as per college policies. I will make general notes about class engagement of students on a periodic basis (see Class Engagement in this syllabus). This does not, however, mean that students will not be assigned points or “deducted points” for any single behavior.

Homework Structure:

The course will consist of about 1 0 homework assignments, each of which will be composed of the three sections described below. The [bracked] times are the intended work times for each part.

Homework due dates:

Homework assignments are due by 12:00 noon on the Monday before each Tuesday’s class . This deadline is intended to help you pace your learning such that you’ve practiced and grown comfortable with the previous week’s material before moving on to new material.

Homework submission:

All homework will be submitted via email to Eric, the instructor, at . We are also investigating alternative methods for submitting mapping files—please check our class schedule for submission guidelines.

When submitting via email, p lease include the homework number in the subject line of the email to aid me in sorting and organizing your work. I will make every effort to grade homework Monday evening and Tuesday morning such that you have received feedback via email before moving onto the next topic. This also allows me to reteach any concepts that students seemed to have struggled with.

Late homework:

Completing homework on schedule is essential for success in this course. Dragging out homework into the next week’s work will detract from your learning and create added stress as homework assignments stack up alongside new content. Students are allowed 1-2 late homework submissions but you must email me BEFORE the due date and let me know the reason for the late submission and include your plan for finishing the work. All late homework will be graded as usual and feedback will be provided. While late homework discouraged, you can still learn plenty doing the homework even if it is after the official due date. Please do not abuse this relatively relaxed late submission policy! That will cause a mess for me and for you.

Checkpoints (not tests!):

This course will not involve tests that are high pressure, completed entirely independently, and heavily weighted. Rather, the course is designed to encourage and support regular practice which leads to incremental learning . Many courses that heavily weight tests end up encouraging students to cram in content learning directly before each major exam, and this often detracts from the regular practice that is likely much more important to becoming a proficient programmer.

In this spirit, we will have three checkpoint tasks that are completed during class and involve completing a mini mapping project that you have not previously seen. The goal of the checkpoints is to communicate with me about your learning progress so I can support you as much as possible in meeting your educational goals. They should be prepared for using the preparation guides on the course website, but they are not designed to be stressful or “make or break” in quality. They are literally a checking in about your progress through learning Java. Nothing more, nothing less.

The mini-project should take approximately 2 hours to complete and will demand that you apply all of the core concepts learned in the course up to that checkpoint time.

During the checkpoint, you will be encouraged to use any and all mapping documentation and  resources that you find helpful, including the ESRI ArcMap documentation and community forums like StackExchange. Of course, your use of these resources must be cited appropriately in your work log —just as you should always do, forever and ever, throughout your programming journey.

I will be around to provide guidance during the checkpoints, but will be mindful of creating an experience that checks your learning so far, not mine. So I may not answer questions with the same degree of explanation as I might during a normal class session.

You will receive written feedback on your checkpoint program within a week of its completion. Additionally, you’ll receive one of three checkpoint statuses:

  1. 1. On track: You have demonstrated that you’re up to speed with the core content of the class and your practice seems to be working well.  

  2. 2. Course correction needed: You may need to adjust how you’re practicing and engaging in class. I’ll provide specific suggestions in this regard and follow-up with you as needed to support the corrections.  

  3. 3. Call AAA right away: Your work suggests that you probably need some outside help to get back on track. (AAA is the travel company that sends out roadside assistance vehicles to help with car trouble.) If you need “to call AAA” we’ll talk in class or during office hours to get back on track soon.  

Final Project:

Mapping is most fun when you can solve problems creatively for a client . The final project in this course will involve pulling together the core concepts of the mapping software for a project relevant to an outside group, NGO, government or corporation.

Students will be provided with a few sample project outlines to choose from. More ambitious students can work with me to design their own project that accomplish similar educational aims as the ones I propose. This final option is strongly encouraged.

The final two weeks of class time will be lab-style in which you’ll have the bulk of the 3 -hour sessions to work on your projects with partner help or instructor support. Students can work with up to one other student on their projects. All students will complete a project reflection document to submit along with their code and output screen shots.

Final Grade Determination

Philosophy on Points:

Points are a common way of conveying how closely an assignment aligns to the expectations of the teacher. In many instances, however, the points take on a life of their own and begin to drive the entire learning process, rather than the content itself. Additionally, when points are assigned to each and every assignment, class activity, and homework assignment, they begin to take the place of authentic feedback from peers and instructors.

To avoid these pernicious pitfalls, this course will not revolve around points. Class engagement, homework, checkpoints, and the final project will all be evaluated for the learning they reveal and assessed for growth areas. Feedback will be provided in written form or verbally such that the assignments become about the content and not the grade.

If you are a student who is fixated on traking point totals for each HW assignment and checkpoint, etc., please come and talk to me and we can work out a point system that works for you and me.

Grade determination conferences:

Mid-term and final letter grades are determined in a transparent discussion between me and the students. There should be no surprises with respect to grades. If assignments, class engagement, or homework is not satisfactory, this will be communicated in a healthy and encouraging way, not by labeling something or somebody as failing as determined by a percentage of points earned. All students can succeed in the course if they have the desire to do so and are willing to persist in the face of challenges and setbacks.

Final grades, therefore, will be determined by reviewing the holistic quality of each final grade component. The weightings will then be applied to each individual component to arrive at a “technical” grade. I will then evaluate the degree to which the calculated grade reflects the overall effort and orientation of each student during the course using the narrative description of each grade letter as a guide. During a final grade conference, I will sit down with each student and present what I think is a fair grade. Students will then have the chance to discuss how well that grade seems to reflect their effort throughout the course of the semester.

In the case of a discrepancy, a more formal point-based evaluation of each grade component can be conducted and shared to arrive at a final letter grade.

Letter grade descriptions

Final letter grades will roughly correspond with the following overall weighted percentage. The narrative description next to each letter will guide the mid-term and final grade determination process:

Letter Grade

Rough Percentage Band

Narrative Description



Student shows full engagement and self-motivation to learn the core concepts in the class.

Command of all core concepts of the mapping system is demonstrated on the homeworks, final project, and checkpoints.

Attendance is regular and student is engaged (0 or 1 absences) . Creative solutions to problems are pursued and implemented.

Deliberate effort is made to complete checkpoints with excellence. Student responds to feedback positively and implements suggested learning activities.

All class absences are made up according to the class session makeup policy. Effort is revealed to command the material missed.

Communication with the teacher is consistent and reflective of a collaborative learning relationship.



Student is engaged in class and develops a command of the core concepts of the course. Attempts are made to creatively solve problems with consistent effort exerted to solve the problems.

Command of about three quarters of the core concepts of the mapping system is demonstrated on the final project and checkpoints.

Attendance is regular and absences are communicated (2-3 missed classes max).

Checkpoints show steady effort but less overall command of the evaluated concepts than those earning an “A”.

Communication with the teacher is consistent and positive.

Most missed classes are made up with decent effort.



Student shows mediocre engagement in the subject material and may miss a few core concepts such that checkpoints do not demonstrate command of each core concept.

Command of of about two-thirds of the core concepts of the mapping system is demonstrated on the final project and checkpoints.

Class engagement is weak and/or attendance is sporadic (4 missed classes Max) . Missed classes are not made up or make-ups are not complete. Contributions to the class are generally negative in tone and distract from the overall positive energy of the classroom.

Communication with the teacher is minimal.



Student shows a lack of engagement in class, misses sessions often, and fails to make them up. Performance on checkpoints reveals very little command of the core concepts of the course.

Command of of about half of the core concepts of the mapping system is demonstrated on the final project and checkpoints.

4 or more classes are missed and not communicated about.

Contributions to the class are overwhelmingly negative in tone and distract from the overall positive energy of the classroom.

Communication with the teacher is minimal or too late to be productive.


Below 60%

Student fails to demonstrate even mediocre command of the course concepts. Missed classes are frequent (4+ sessions) and not made up. Communication with the teacher is low or nonexistent.


Honesty in academic work:

I take academic honesty seriously. The basic principle to follow here is:

Attach your name only to your own work, and give credit to others whose thinking and work (code) you use in your own code. Give credit to both yourself and others—all the time—period.

“Work” includes both any code used in your map itself as well as the techniques used in the projects . Just like in written English papers where citations are required when drawing on somebody else’s language or ideas, citing the source of any borrowed content is essential in this course. You can do this by inserting the name of the source and the access URL in your work log for any assignment or project – either in class or as outside work.

With respect to mapping, you will be asked to create a work process log for all the assignments and projects that you do outside of the step-by-step tutorials in the Gorr and Kurland book. If you use a guide online to figure out how to resolve, say, a Type error issue, please make a note in your work log like this:

I got stuck trying to join two Census tables. I pasted the following error message into and used a posting (URL: to learn that I need to change both fields to a double data type.

Failure to cite use of outside sources is grounds for invalidation of the assignment, as a plagiarized assignment is not your own, so you should not be given credit for doing something you didn’t actually do. The impact of such events is at the discretion of the instructor and will be determined in consultation with the department chair and the student.

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