Curriculum Development Using Design Thinking

I was recently given the opportunity to develop a series of geospatial information system (GIS) classes for the New York City Department of Transportation. These classes build on the successful series of data analytics classes I’ve been teaching for NYC employees and are intended to help develop the ability of NYCDOT employees to better leverage open data and open-source technology. Having already taught an Introduction to QGIS class with NYCDOT employees, I had a sense of their needs and the range of classes that would meet those needs. I’ve also been teaching some form of GIS and spatial visualization for several years now, but I still felt I needed to broaden my sense of what these classes should contain and how they should be best structured to meet the needs of NYCDOT employees.

I’ve been experimenting with design thinking in creating classes. I usually start with a brainstorming exercise and then start structuring the course based on the logical organization of the topics I’ve generated. My first experience in doing this with someone else came when I worked with Chase Davis to create the Algorithms class for the Lede Program at Columbia University. In that case, it was the two of us in dialogue to co-create the class. For this series of GIS classes, I decided to broaden the input and tap into the wonderful network of GIS professionals working in New York City (many of whom also happen to be my friends). Tapping this network brought experienced GIS teachers together with graduate students still in the process of learning the fundamentals of GIS. We met for an hour to discuss the key topics students need to know to have a well-rounded education in GIS that they could directly apply to their work.

The key to success for any session like this is food. Providing lunch was a way to not only entice participation but also create a relaxed atmosphere. From there, we introduced ourselves and got acquainted with our backgrounds. I specifically asked each person to share one thing they enjoy about teaching. Without fail, they described the personal benefits of teaching (“I have to really learn the material to teach it”) to the joy of seeing students take the learning outside of the class and do something interesting with it.

After describing the students as I’ve come to know them to help frame the discussion, we started with a brainstorming exercise. The goal was to get everyone’s ideas about key concepts and topics that the class would need to cover. Each person started off with the concept they thought was the most important and we began discussing it, particularly in the way each person had interpreted its meaning and significance. Some also described the atmosphere we needed to create as part of the class, which stimulated some great discussion around the method by which these topics were best taught.

I began grouping similar concepts together and then we worked on categories of topics. It soon became apparent that things didn’t fit neatly into one or another category and these were able to sit on the boundaries. We then took these and began the process of mapping out the sequence of classes. The original plan called for an introductory class for people with no GIS background, an intermediate class for those with more experience, and two different advanced courses, one focusing on spatial analytics and the other on design and visualization. Our particular focus was on the introductory and intermediate classes with an eye to how these would integrate with the advanced classes.

In some cases, the concepts fit neatly into one or the other classes. In other cases, the concepts were the same but the complexity evolved. This was great to see as someone who believes strongly that we should teach for comprehension not completeness. I focus on the minimum complexity necessary to communicate a concept and then build from there. It was good to see my fellow educators having a similar approach to the teaching they do.

While we’d intended to map more of the advanced courses, we ran out of time. This is the one major thing I’d change about this session, the length. I was trying to be respectful of everyone’s time and conduct a short, concise session, but it was clear we needed more time to fully explore the issues. We could’ve easily used another 30 mins, which would have helped us round out the discussion and explore more of what the major topics we discussed initially looked like in each class. I’ve included a slightly modified version of the meeting outline below, which you can fork and modify on Github.

Overall, the experience was an immense success. I’m particularly impressed with how the less experienced members of the group spoke up about their own personal experiences learning GIS. This was invaluable information and something that could’ve easily been self-censored. So too was the experience of the teachers and practitioners in the group. That perspective was invaluable to contextualize the topics we were discussing with practical pedagogical experience.

I would encourage anyone who’s faced with the challenge to build out a series of courses or even developing a complex single course to explore a more creative method of generating and organizing ideas. Getting diverse perspectives on a topic helps meet a diverse set of needs and expectations, while improving the experience for everyone, particularly the students, but also the instructor and those involved in the process. Hopefully the gracious people who came out on a rainy Thursday in December come away with a slightly different perspective on the art of teaching and something of the same inspiration I walked away with. I hope you find that as well.

Cover photo by Flickr user mnadi, used under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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