Week 1 Intro GIS

Syllabus (as of Sept 8)

Fall 2020

Location: Zoom

Time: Mondays and Wednesdays, 10:45 am – noon

Instructor: Rebecca Shakespeare (she/her/hers), rebecca.shakespeare@tufts.edu

There are no prerequisites. Students are expected to have competence in computer use and some familiarity with Microsoft Windows environment and file management.

Names & Pronouns: You can make a note of (and/or update) your preferred name and the pronouns you use on SIS.  Rebecca prefers to be called “Rebecca” or “Dr. Shakespeare” and uses the pronouns “she”, “her”, and “hers”.

1. Course description

Welcome to your semester-long adventure into GIS technologies and applied methods!

GIS refers to Geographic Information Systems (the technology) and to Geographic Information Sciences (the inquiry and analysis). These have wide-ranging uses in many disciplines, industries, and in your own life, from studying the spread of disease to selecting a new location for a grocery store, from remotely assessing crop health to finding the shortest route home. Throughout the semester, you will take on the role of GIS analysts in a variety of situations, working through tutorials and performing guided analyses. You’ll culminate the semester by completing your own analysis on a topic of your choosing, creating a poster or storymap to present your findings.

Each week, you will develop knowledge of how GIS was developed, how its databases are structured, and how GIS data is created, stored, and used. In lab sessions, you will gain hands-on experience working with GIS software and spatial data, using it for site selection and demographic analysis. You’ll also gain practical experience working with cartography and spatial analysis, making maps and performing guided analyses. You’ll also develop the skills to learn more about GIS yourself, so you will leave this class an independent GIS user.  While this class is not all-inclusive, by the end of the semester you will have the ability to ask geospatial questions, perform your own spatial analyses, make your own maps, and be prepared to take more advanced GIS courses. 

2. Course Objectives

In 3 years, I’m looking forward to running into you in a cafe or the grocery store or on the street! I’m hoping you’ll say: 

“Wow I can’t believe it’s been three years since I was in Intro GIS! I learned so much in that class. I still feel empowered to answer my spatial questions using GIS. If I’m recalling things correctly, I remember that we have to transform the earth into a uniform surface to analyze spatial relationships or distributions, and that important features are simplified in ways that don’t perfectly represent reality. I still look at maps and think “wow, that map shows the perspective and purpose of the cartographer; I wonder what information they simplified, generalized, or left out in order to make their point?””


  • You will understand many ways that maps are generalizations and assess sources of error and bias.
  • You will know how to ask and answer spatial questions.
  • You will understand how data, functions, and analyses collectively address spatial questions.
  • You will know how to independently start and execute an analyses in ArcMap using data in a variety of formats.
  • You will know how to communicate the processes and results of geospatial analyses verbally, in writing, and through cartography.

By the end of this course, you will be able to:

  • Identify data structures in spatial data (rasters or vectors)
  • Describe, design and use basic spatial databases (using keys, joins and queries)
  • Implement geocoding and geo-processing techniques in ArcMap
  • Interpret simple spatial statistics in ArcMap
  • Design spatial analysis approaches for raster and vector data in ArcGIS
  • Appraise maps and spatial analyses in journal articles and other media
  • Design an independent project that incorporates spatial analysis methods
  • Communicate the process and outcomes of spatial analyses and independent project

3. Assessments

Weekly Assignments 

In weekly assignments, you will practice making maps and follow guided analyses. The skills you develop in assignments are directly related to your final project and your future use of GIS. 

Assignments are designed to challenge you and give you early feedback on your GIS skills. You will have the opportunity to revise and resubmit any assignment based on feedback within 1 week of receiving feedback.


This class will have three midterm assessments to give you the opportunity to demonstrate and apply the skills you learn in this class. These are designed to give you early feedback on your learning this semester.

The first midterm is a scavenger hunt for you to perform independently, out of class time, evaluating your application of skills and knowledge from the first 4 weeks of this class.

The second midterm is a take-home, open-book evaluation of your skills and knowledge from the first 8 weeks of this course. The purpose of the exam is to challenge you to apply the skills and approaches you have learned in a new context, much like you would if you started a new job or began a new project.

The final midterm will occur on the last day of class. It will be a team-based assessment of the skills you will leave the class with. 

You will have the opportunity to improve your score on these assessments.

Final Project

Your final project is a spatial analysis of your own choosing, culminating in a short presentation, a poster or storymap, and a 5-7 page paper detailing your findings and process. This project will demonstrate your ability to perform spatial analysis, apply GIS approaches, create maps, and synthesize findings for a general audience.

Dedicated activities and class sessions throughout the semester will support your project design, development, and implementation. You will be assigned to a final project team for peer review, accountability, and peer tech support.

Lab Notebook  (due before Wednesday session)

As a GIS user, I can attest that spatial analyses, mapmaking, and GIS problem-solving can be complicated and keeping track of your work is critical to working efficiently and recalling what you have already done and what you have tried. Keeping a written log of your learning supports the course objective that you are able to communicate the processes and outcomes of spatial analyses. This is a good practice for any long-term project work. In class, these will serve two purposes: 

1) Your lab notebook will have weekly prompts for you to reflect and apply concepts you are learning in class. You may wish to use this to log things you have learned and to try out ideas you are unsure of.

2) You will document elements of your final project as it develops throughout the semester and log skills you develop in labs and assignments.  

Finally, at the end of the semester, you will post one longer post reviewing the whole semester and reflecting on your posts throughout the semester. 

Your lab notebook can be accessed using the links in assignment posts and from the left side of the course navigation. Only the Instructor and TA can read your lab notebook. You may be prompted to recall your lab notebook posts to use in classroom discussions.

Participation & Attendance

GIS involves learning temperamental software, new ways of thinking, and applying patience and practice to achieve your spatial analysis goals. Coming to class and participating in in-class activities supports your learning by giving you chances trying things out and relating course materials to the rest of your interests and life. Additionally, your peers in this class will become technical, troubleshooting, and brainstorming resources for you as you work on your final project, and spending time in class learning together fosters this learning community later in the semester.

Participation in classroom activities, discussions, in-class polls, peer review, and other activities will be assessed at each midterm  by instructor.

Attendance is critical for learning and practice; please let the instructor know if you need to miss a class and review material covered.

If you are sick, dealing with personal issues, going to a conference or job interview, seeking a speaker, etc during a class meeting, I trust that you are making wise decisions balancing your education in GIS and the rest of your life. If you need to miss a class for an anticipated reason, or end up unable to come to class for whatever reason, please email Rebecca and Nilakshi in advance to make up for the material covered in that session. 

You may miss one class session “unaddressed” this semester at no penalty. We understand that each semester presents its own uncertainties. If you are unable to come to class prepared, but are able to come to class, you may take a “ISU” day by indicating that in your name. We’ll respect that you “showed up.”

Additional unaddressed or absences will impact your grade, and will likely impact your performance in other elements of this class.

Resubmission policy

The goal of this class is for you to learn. All complete assignments (excepting the final paper and project) that are submitted on time are eligible for resubmission for full credit within a week of graded return. 

Resubmissions must include:

1) Your revised assignment. Please highlight or indicate what you have changed in text portions.

2) 2-3 sentences describing what you changed and what you learned from completing the revision or redoing part of the assignment. You can type these into the assignment, or into the comments on the assignment’s grade page.

4. Grading: 

This class uses a contract grading system. 

To fulfill any grade contract a student must do the following, which should nonetheless be specified in the contract submitted for approval. When writing self assessments students must describe how they have met these requirements in addition to the grade-specific requirements:

  1. Come to class prepared (to discuss content, to do lab activities). Participate actively in class activities and discussions, making observations and asking questions that help the class think together. Be prepared to participate in class sessions even if technology is not working and seek alternative ways to participate if you are unable to attend a synchronous session. 
  2. Attempt all assignments, midterms, and final project assignments. Turn in all work on time and communicate with instructor team if extenuating circumstances prevent that. Complete lab notebook, discussion board posts, and presentations. Review feedback on all assignments. Achieve “acceptable” on all midterms.
  3. Meet with Rebecca one-on-one at least two times this semester (as assigned between Sept 14 and 25 and again between Nov 9 and 20… and as scheduled) and come to Nilakshi’s office hours at least once. 
  4. Revise contractual assignments as necessary until both you and I consider them “Acceptable,” returning them within 1 week of receiving feedback.
  5. Complete a final self-assessment demonstrating that your work has met the agreed requirements, submitting it to Rebecca by Dec 22.

Contract for A Grade: 

Achieve “Acceptable” score on every assignment.

Achieve “Acceptable” on final project & paper.

Contract for B Grade: 

Achieve “Acceptable” on all but 2 assignments.

Achieve “Acceptable” on the final project & paper.

Contract for a C Grade: 

Achieve “Acceptable” on all but 4 assignments.

Achieve “acceptable” on the final project OR final paper (yes, you must completely attempt both).

Contract for D or F grade: 

There is no contract for a D or F. D indicates some minimal fulfilling of the contract. F is absence of enough information to indicate you have passed the class. Both D & F indicate a breakdown of the contractual relationship above. 

5. Inevitable tech problems

There are a variety of ways that technology will try to impede our progress in this class. Here are first steps for a variety of derailing situations. 

1) ArcPro (or another GIS software) ate my assignment! 

– Save early, save often

– Start assignments early. 

– Organize your files consistently

– Always save to Box (or your chosen and reliable save location)

– Wait until Box is done uploading your file before closing ArcPro. 

– Make sure your permissions in ArcGIS online (if you are using it) are set appropriately.

2) My internet doesn’t work well enough during class time to join on zoom today.

– Email Rebecca and Nilakshi to say you’ll be calling in (if your email works).

– Call into class.  The class phone-in number will be linked here after the first week of class. If you can call in 5 minutes early, we will work with you to make sure you’re set up with your available technology, or make arrangements to catch up.

– Have paper ready – you will likely need to make notes and/or draw!

– If you’re missing materials, we will email them to you; if this is not possible or suitable, we will all hone our skills for class goal: “You will know how to communicate the processes and results of geospatial analyses verbally, in writing, and through cartography.”

3) Zoom related issues

– I got kicked out: Come back! We’ll let you right back in. 

– My audio isn’t working: Let us know in the chat. Join with audio on your phone, if possible.

– My video isn’t working: Let us know in the chat. Rename yourself to include (no video). 

– I can’t join class: Email Nilakshi. 

6. Final Project

The purpose of the final project is to provide experience in collecting, processing and analyzing spatial data. The project can be relevant to your research interests, to a thesis, or for a joint project or final paper in another course.

Start thinking about project ideas early in the semester. The project should use spatial analysis software to examine the spatial implications of a research problem. The final products of the project are a poster for a general audience and a 5-7 page paper describing the data and methods in detail to a GIS specialist. Along the way, you will be prompted to discuss elements of your project in your Lab Notebook, produce a project abstract, present a map in class, and provide feedback to 2 peers on their map presentations. 

To support this project, you must schedule and meet with the instructor at least two times during the semester: one time before February 1 and one time before your project abstract is due. 

7. Textbook

Required (web version online): Campbell, J., & Shin, M. (2011). Essentials of geographic information systemshttps://saylordotorg.github.io/text_essentials-of-geographic-information-systems/ (Links to an external site.)

Other readings and reference information will be included in the weekly schedule. Please prepare readings for the Monday session of class unless otherwise noted. 

8. Student Responsibilities for Meeting Course Objectives (aka: How to get the most out of this class)

  1. Do the readings and come to class prepared: Obtain and read the required and supplemental material. You will be evaluated on knowledge and skills obtained from lecture, discussion, lab exercises, the required textbook and supplemental reading materials.
  2. Participate in class: Be prepared for class discussions and participation in group problem solving. Volunteer to discuss information, answer questions, brainstorm with your fellow classmates, and provide feedback. 
  3. Read announcements: Read all announcements for this class. Critical information, reminders, and updates will come through announcements, not over email. 
  4. Submit quality work on time: Out-of-class assignments must be presented professionally. This means the course project and weekly assignments must be legible and free of spelling and grammatical errors. References must be cited properly.
  5. Communicate with Rebecca: Email the best way to contact me (Rebecca) outside of class: rebecca.shakespeare@tufts.edu. It may take up to one workday for me to return an e-mail message, so please plan accordingly. You may also make an appointment to meet with me during lab time or outside of class here: https://meet-with-rebecca-shakespeare.appointlet.com/ (Links to an external site.). Plan to meet with me at least two times outside of class this semester to discuss your project: once early in the semester and once before Thanksgiving.
  6. Visit lab hours! Here are some circumstances where you should definitely come to lab hours (format TBD)
    1. You have a cool project idea you want to talk about.
    2. You have a question about something from class.
    3. You’re excited that you found spatial data and aren’t sure what to do with it.
    4. You’re concerned about how well you understand the material we covered in class, or are stuck on a part of an assignment.
    5. You’re frustrated that the data you found is messy and hard to work with and your friends just don’t understand.
  7. Spend many hours in the Data Lab and Remote Lab: Learning to work with GIS software and with data for your project will take time and practice. Plan to spend time in the lab outside of class throughout the semester. The DataLab has many resources available for students including consultants and data. 
  8. Use out-of-class academic resources : Tufts University has assistance available for students in need of academic help. The STAAR CenterLinks to an external site. provides writing support and advice on avoiding plagiarism, time management, among other supports, to ensure students’ successful undergraduate careers.
  9. Practice academic integrity and have pride in doing your own work: Tufts holds its students strictly accountable for adherence to academic integrity. The consequences for violations can be severe. It is critical that you understand the requirements of ethical behavior and academic work as described in Tufts’ Academic Integrity handbook. If you ever have a question about the expectations concerning a particular assignment or project in this course, be sure to ask me for clarification. The Faculty of the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering are required to report suspected cases of academic integrity violations to the Dean of Student Affairs Office. If I suspect that you have cheated or plagiarized in this class, I must report the situation to the dean.
  10. Students with disabilities: Tufts University values the diversity of our students, staff, and faculty, recognizing the important contribution each student makes to our unique community. Students with disabilities are assured that the Student Accessibility Services office will work with each student individually to ensure access to all aspects of student life. Tufts is committed to providing equal access and support to all students through the provision of reasonable accommodations so that each student may access their curricula and achieve their personal and academic potential. If you have a disability that requires reasonable accommodations please contact the Student Accessibility Services office at 617-627-4539, or through their email at Accessibility@tufts.edu to make an appointment to determine appropriate accommodations. Please be aware that accommodations cannot be enacted retroactively, making timeliness a critical aspect for their provision.

9. Instructional team support for Meeting Course Objectives (We’re here to help you succeed)

  1. Office and Lab hours: Our doors (and emails) are always open to your questions, curiosities, and problems. Visit early and often so we can get to know you and your interests, and help you attain your learning objectives for this class.
  2. Grading: We strive to provide you with feedback on your work within 1 week of the submission deadline, provided you submit a complete assignment on time. We’ll give you opportunities to learn from your mistakes and grow in your knowledge as a result of grading.
  3. Lab notebooks: We will review to your lab notebook periodically to provide additional resources, and ensure that your project is going well. Please email us if you’d like us to review it right now!

***Week 1 Overview

Spatial Thinking: Overview

This week we’ll start with thinking spatially. We’ll focus on developing language for talking about spatial relationships, asking spatial questions, and discerning between spatial and non-spatial data. We’ll also start thinking about how maps generalize reality. 

Learning Objectives

  • Distinguish between spatial and non-spatial data
  • Apply frameworks to create spatial questions
  • Explain where course elements are on the Canvas online interface
  • Identify ways that maps are abstractions
  • Be aware that there are many types of GIS software
  • Define spatial concepts: location; direction; distance; space; navigation

***Week 1 Readings etc

Spatial Thinking: Content


Campbell and Shin Chapter 1. This is available online as a textbook (Links to an external site.), or you can find a podcast version on anchor (Links to an external site.) and on Spotify (Links to an external site.) – if you use a different podcast tool, let me know and I’ll work on getting it there, too. 

The Language of Spatial Analysis (Chapter 1, pages 5-7 (Links to an external site.)) (You’ll see this text again in the Activity & your Lab Notebook)


What is GIS:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2r43AWi4YM (Links to an external site.)

Why? This is a very short introduction to GIS. We’ll be talking more about the origins of GIS over the coming weeks. 


Create at least three spatial questions in the Activity that follows. These pages from The Langauge of Spatial Analysis present types of spatial questions and examples of them. Select 3 pages and pose a spatial question in a format similar to the ones on the page.  Try to pick pages from different sections of the book.

Why? Formulating and answering spatial questions is a key part of this class. Practicing from examples is a good place to hone your skills at formulation.

***Assignment 1 (part 1)

What to do

Analyze a poster and a map from a GIS poster, applying concepts from Week 1 (in your initial submission) and Week 2 (in your revised submission). Practice saving files for revision and resubmission.


The purpose of this assignment is to start thinking about what kind of spatial question you will answer in your final project for this course. You will analyze an GIS poster from a previous semester and relate it to your own interests.

Associated learning objectives

  • Apply frameworks to create spatial questions
  • Define spatial concepts: location; direction; distance; space; navigation

Part 1 (Initial submission)

Search the Tufts GIS poster expo website for a poster you find interesting. Pay attention to how you search (topics? regions? by department?) and what you find interesting about the poster you select (design? type of analysis? topic? place?). 

For your initial submission, create a single document with the following items, numbered and in this order

  • List the title of the poster you chose and its author. 
  • Reflect on why you chose this poster. Write one paragraph (about 200-300 words) relating the spatial analysis in the poster you selected to your own interests and life. 
  • Select one map from the poster and take a screenshot of it. Paste this screenshot into your document
  • List 2 spatial questions that this MAP raises or answers.
  • In 2-5 sentences, discuss how the concepts of location, space, distance, direction, and/or navigation are present or used in this MAP.