In 2010, two DePaul Geography majors — Alexandra Diana Maties (’10) and Joan Nikki Chaffin (’10) — were each named “Outstanding GIS Student in Illinois” by the Illinois Geographical Information Systems Association (ILGISA). The prestigious award recognizes undergraduate students (only five each year) who have “included GIS in their course of study and [have] demonstrated exemplary proficiency and understanding of GIS, potential contribution to the GIS community, and general success in academics.”
“It’s great for our students — and by extension, our program — to get this well-deserved recognition from a leading professional organization” says Professor Euan Hague, Chair of the Department of Geography. “When it comes to GIS, we don’t just train the students in software; our approach is more holistic. In one class a student might learn the history of urbanization — say, how cities develop through the lens of federal policies for housing and transportation — and that provides a context for hands-on mapping. In other words, our program balances the theoretical, historical, and practical.”
Maps engage everyone, map makers and communities alike.
In one of her GIS courses, Maties helped map the availability of fresh food in Humboldt Park for the Community Organizing for Obesity Prevention.
“The project started with key questions: why is the rate of obesity in Humboldt Park three times that of the national average? Is the neighborhood a food desert?” says Julie Hwang, assistant professor. “One might say a map is a simple way to present information, yet a map can actually provide a comprehensive look at what’s going on in a community. By integrating multiple variables, a map creates the basis for discourses leading to creative solutions.”
Hague agrees: “Maps are a gateway to a bigger narrative. Showing data in a chart is not as effective as seeing a huge residential area with only three grocery stores – that’s a striking image; that tells a story. Because maps are intuitive, they make communication easy; with a map of their neighborhood, people can see what’s going on.”
Maties has also mapped the relationships between income, race, and air pollution in Cook County. “Mapping shows what raw data cannot, which is how location matters,” she says. “Everyone and everything has a location, and in turn location affects everything, including politics and public policy, architecture, and economics.”
In her GIS project, Nikki Chaffin mapped the relationship between job training and job opportunities for ex-offenders. How important is location in rehabilitation? “A person’s success is affected by his or her local, social network,” she says. “An ex-offender’s tendency to re-engage in criminal activity also seems to correlate with neighborhood characteristics such as crime, poverty, and unemployment rates.”
Mapping puts students at the center of the action.
“Students who study geography gain relevant skills because at the heart of what we do is field research — 100 years ago that might have meant exploring Africa; these days, it means working with community organizations,” says Hague. “DePaul is a fantastic place for that.”
The Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning gives GIS students access to community projects: organizations come to the Center to ask f0r workers; the Department of Geography goes to the Center to find community groups that need the students’ mapping expertise. Together, the Center and the department are planning a joint scholarship program that would put students directly into community organizations to help with surveying and mapping work.
“The Steans Center adds a dimension to our students’ learning,” says Hwang. “The GIS class that requires community field research puts everything together — people, culture, history, economy, and policy. It’s very satisfying to see what the students discover, to see them gain the knowledge-outside-a-book that links GIS to the larger societal context.”
DePaul’s Geography major is also unusual for another reason: students gain a Certificate in GIS after completing the five required courses. The Certificate augments their major, making them even more attractive to employers after graduation.
“Our GIS certificate is one of the fastest growing programs in our department,” says Hague. “Interest in community mapping faded in the 1980s and 1990s, but now with the growth of technologies like Google Earth, the mapping discipline is at the center of the action. Just about anything can be mapped, and our students with mapping skills are getting good jobs.”