Introduction to Geographic Information Systems

Image of the Ganges Delta acquired by the Landsat 7 satellite on February 28, 2000. Source: USGS EROS Data Center Satellite Systems Branch; NASA/USGS Landsat 7; NASA Earth Observatory.

Welcome to Intro to GIS!

Nick Bader, Fall 2019

Class time: Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 to 11:20 am, Hall of Science 176

Getting help

You can find me in my office in the Hall of Science 150, just off the atrium, on Mondays 11 am to noon, Mondays 1-3 pm, and Tuesdays 2:30 - 4 pm. (This semester, if I am not in my office, try the GIS lab, Science 176, near our classroom - I may be helping a student there.) During these office hours, you can stop by without an appointment to discuss the course or whatever is on your mind. If these times don't work for you, no problem. You can handle this in several ways: first, you are welcome to bring questions to my office whenever the door is open (or even a little bit open - sometimes it gets noisy in the Science atrium). If this does not work for you, just email me and we can set up an appointment. You may also ask questions by email; if I think that other students might share your question I will respond to the whole group.

Course description

A geographic information system (GIS) is a powerful tool for displaying, exploring, and analyzing geographic data. Any data that has a geographic component (including most data in the Earth sciences and environmental sciences) can benefit from GIS. Formerly a tool employed primarily by city planners, conservationists, utilities, and developers, GIS is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in geology and even in non-traditional fields such as the social sciences. Familiarity with GIS can be a decided advantage in today's job market. This course will introduce GIS concepts through examples of current geological and environmental applications in conjunction with hands-on experience in the lab. Course topics range from history and cartography to data structures and analytical methods. Students will be expected to complete an independent research project using GIS tools.

What will this class do for you?

I hope this class will allow you to:

  • Have a solid foundation in ESRI's ArcGIS 10 software
  • Be able to use help resources to move forward on your own with your future GIS endeavors
  • Find and prepare useful data sets from online sources
  • Effectively communicate the results of your work with attractive and clear maps

Course structure

Each week, there will be two class periods of 80 minutes each. These class periods are not strictly "lecture" or "lab" but are a combination of both. During class periods, we may use the time to do any of the following:

  • Introduce the fundamental concepts of geographic information systems in a lecture format.
  • Apply the concepts from lecture using ArcGIS software in a series of exercises and case studies.
  • Near the end of the semester, some class times will be devoted to independent work on your GIS projects (see below for more details).

Course materials

  • Required "textbook" (not at the bookstore): Campbell and Shin, Essentials of Geographic Information Systems. It is online, and it is free! You can access it here:
  • Required hardware: USB flash drive, at least a few Gb. If you already have one that works and has plenty of space, you don't need to buy a new one. (Thumb drives are becoming less expensive every year - I just saw a 16 Gb drive for less than $5). You will need this for backing up your work and for working outside the GIS lab.

Google-y infrastructure

Your Whitmail account is tied to a set of Google services. In this course, I will set you up with a personal folder on Google Drive that you will use to turn in assignments, and a shared group folder that you can use to access some of our readings. You will also have a class email list that you can use to communicate with the entire class. If you use Google Calendar, you can show the class schedule in your own calendar. And of course, you can communicate with me via email.


Your grade will be based on lab exercises, some short homework assignments, and a GIS project.

Lab exercises (45% of the class grade)

Each lab, you will follow a program designed to introduce you to a particular aspect of GIS. Depending upon the lab, you may turn in a page of exercise questions, a map you construct in ArcGIS, or both. Typically you will finish the lab during the lab period. If you need more time, labs may be turned in without penalty until the beginning of lab the following week.

Individual GIS project (40% of the class grade)

  1. You will complete a final project that applies the concepts learned in class to a research area of your choosing. The research project will be broken down into stages:
  2. Identify a research topic.
  3. Acquire relevant data to answer your research question.
  4. Use ArcGIS software to make a map or maps illustrating your research question.
  5. Collect the your final project data and pertinent metadata
  6. Present the results of your work to the class.

See below for more information on the projects.

Homework (15% of the class grade)

There will be regular small homework assignments designed to reinforce the skills you learn during labs. Exercises will be due in your CLEo dropbox a few days after they are assigned. You will get details by email during the course.


Although I do not keep track of your attendance, the large amount of in-class work makes your attendance highly recommended! If you cannot attend a scheduled class for any reason, it is your responsibility to get the work completed on your own.

Late work

Assignments can be handed in late, but you will lose five points for each day the assignment is late. For example, if you turn in an assignment less than 24 hours late, your maximum score will be 95%; if you turn it in between one and two days late, your maximum score will be 90%, etc. Note that assignments turned in three weeks late cannot get credit. Obviously, I can no longer accept late work after I turn in grades following our project presentations.

Letter grades

I use a standard system for grading based on your percentage of total possible points:

97 - 100%: A+; 93 - 96%: A; 90 - 92%: A-

87 - 89%: B+; 83 - 86%: B; 80 - 82%: B-

77 - 79%: C+; 73 - 76%: C; 70 - 72%: C-

67 - 69%: D+; 63 - 66%: D; 60 - 62%: D-

< 60%: F

How to succeed in this course

Here is the most important advice I can give you about having a good experience and getting a good grade in GIS: show up, and turn your work in on time. That's it. (That's right - like any other course at Whitman or experience in life, your performance is mostly a measure of your ability to manage your time, not of any particular expertise!). If you look carefully at my late policy, you will see that it is punishing. In fact, I think I can honestly say that all of the bad grades I have ever given out in this course were due to a pattern of missing assignments or turning them in late. The moral of this story is that you need to be vigilant that you keep up with the class and turn in your assignments on time. Everything else, as they say, is just gravy.

Individual GIS projects

As mentioned above, you will each be expected to complete an independent research project using GIS tools. The scale of the project is not particularly important, but your finished project should convey your command of the ArcGIS software. You will present your work in class, with GIS maps as figures, and turn in all of your maps and data. Your grade on this project will represent about a third of your class grade, so please take it seriously.

The topic of your research can be of your own choosing. If you have a particular research area that you will be studying for a senior project, an independent study, or for another class, you are welcome to focus your research project on that study area. Be aware, however, that sometimes the data you need do not exist, so you may want to think of a backup project idea or two just in case.

Here I will break up the project into smaller assignments. Take a look at the schedule to see the due dates for each of these assignments.

Assignment 1: Schedule a meeting with me to discuss your topic.

Assignment 2: Write a brief project research proposal. This should be in the form of an abstract. Here is a formula that works for all proposal abstracts, with one or more sentences for each part:

  • Demonstrate that your research area is either important or interesting.
  • Show that there is some kind of problem, like a gap in our knowledge, or the need for some map that you will be making.
  • Explain in general terms how your work will solve the problem by filling the knowledge gap or building your map. Include enough detail so that readers will believe that you will be able to answer the questions.

Don't be too ambitious about your research projects --- time and data will limit the work that you can complete in one semester.

Assignment 3: Acquire relevant data to answer your research question.

Find and download two or more datasets relevant to your project, and get them to overlay properly in ArcMap. You will show me this map document in lab on the due date (see the schedule below). Be sure to acquire the relevant metadata for each dataset.

This stage may be trouble-free, or it may be the most time-consuming part of the whole project. Be prepared for this to take some time and effort. Although there is LOTS of geospatial data out there, it may be difficult to find the data you need for your project. In particular, it may be too expensive for you to use. It is not uncommon for the same data set to be free from one site and thousands of dollars from another. Keep in mind that students may be able to get some data free that professionals would have to pay for. Also, you should be vigilant about acquiring the relevant metadata at this stage. Metadata is often hidden somewhere in the website where you acquired the data, and may be more difficult to find later.

Assignment 4: Make some progress!

For this assignment you will simply show me, in whatever form you like, evidence that you have made progress towards completing your research project. We can't be more specific at this stage since we don't know the details of your project, but as the due date rolls around you may ask me if you need more direction.

Assignment 5: Present your work

Most of your project grade comes from your final products. Your finished project grade is determined by several different parts:

  1. The WORK you did through the semester (10% of the project grade). All the work on your projects up to this point, including the proposal and the mini progress assignments. This is partly a subjective measure of how much you have been working on the project.
  2. The DATA layers that you built, made, digitized, or processed for your project (25% of the project grade). This data should be organized and well-documented in a single project folder in your personal folder on the D: drive, with sensible filenames, all appropriate metadata, and all junk files purged. Pretend you are giving the project data to another person who is going to take over your project, and that you won't be around to explain it in person. (This is a common occurrence in the real world.) To get full credit your data (1) should have informative filenames (i.e. not "Export_Output.shp" or "Calculation3"); (2) should have its coordinate system correctly defined; and (3) should somehow include metadata. The metadata needs to be just enough to understand (a) where you got your data from, (b) what you did to it, if anything (calculations you made, etc.), and (c) what the data means, including what the pixel value in rasters represents and what the fields in the attribute table are, including units. Example: "National Elevation Dataset elevations, from the USGS seamless server, mosaiced together using ARCGIS, 1/3 arc-second spatial resolution. Elevations are in meters."
  3. Your FINAL MAP(S) (25% of the project grade): Whatever map(s) you made for your project. The exact form of your maps will depend on your research question. You may just be illustrating a series of location maps, or you may be employing remotely-sensed data, or you may ask research questions about spatial relationships among two or more sets of features. You should choose a map projection that minimizes distortion of the characteristics you are interested in. You will turn these in electronically as image files like pdfs or jpegs. These should be image files named by your last name, e.g. "LastnameFig1.pdf", "LastnameFig2.png", etc. I think you have a pretty good idea at this point in the class how I evaluate the quality of your maps.
  4. A FINAL ABSTRACT (15% of the project grade): A half-page (one page maximum) abstract about your project, including the motivation for the study and what you found or did. Your abstract should also include a title, a list of captions for your maps (e.g. "Fig. 1: Map of my study area, showing the region impacted by flying water buffaloes."), and a list of all of the final GIS data layer files you made for the project, and where they are on the D: drive (e.g. "Elevation data: D:\\myfolder\project\detroit_dem.tif").
  5. Your FINAL PRESENTATION (25% of the project grade): A ten-minute presentation of your results to the class during our final lab time in the GIS lab. See below for my rubric for grading your presentations. The presentation should be polished and should use Powerpoint slides, some of which should the maps you made in ArcGIS. Because there are so many of us, the presentations should be kept to an ABSOLUTE MAXIMUM of ten minutes. (This is harder than you think.) You should have these Powerpoint files on the computer at the front of the room by the BEGINNING of class (so if you have class right before, put your file on that morning). I recommend NetFiles or a thumb drive. I'll be around early to help you transfer files to the computer at the front of the room.

My rubric for your final presentation, out of 25 possible points:

  1. Introduction (5 points)
    1. The purpose or importance of the project is explained (3)
    2. Enough background is provided to understand the topic (2)
  2. Content (15 points)
    1. Presentation topics are logically organized and relate to the introduction (5)
    2. Presentation shows understanding of the material (5)
    3. A general but clear description of how GIS was used is included (5)
  3. Style (5 points)
    1. Delivery is practiced, with minimal fumbling for words (2)
    2. Slides and supporting materials are of good quality (2)
    3. Presentation is about ten minutes (1)

Course Calendar

View this calendar in other formats

If you use Google Calendar, you can view these events in your own calendar. Just click the button at the bottom right of the calendar. You will be offered access to two calendars; one named for the GIS course (with most of the course events), and a second calendar called "Bader - all classes" that includes my office hours and occasionally special events like guest speakers.

Course resources

Below are some resources available in electronic format. These include the course syllabus (which is merely a hard copy of parts of this website), a pdf of our course schedule, a folder of lecture notes in pdf format that will be filled as the semester progresses, and a folder of readings that I assign from outside your main textbook. Regarding the course schedule: our schedule may change during this semester, rendering the pdf version obsolete. The Google calendar above will remain up-to-date and should be your primary reference.