*GPS and the New Geography

Featured Course: GPS and the New Geography

Every so often a technology comes along that alters the way we see the world…

Galileo’s use of a telescope to discover the moons of Jupiter changed astronomy forever. Likewise, Leeuwenhoek’s glimpse through a crude microscope at a drop of pond water must have brought a gasp. It’s probably a bit grandiose to say that the new geospatial technologies coming into common use today will have a similar effect on the way we see our world, but it is certain that the combination of GPS and easy-to-use computer mapping systems will significantly alter how geographic knowledge is gathered, stored, and used.

This course introduces students to some of these new technologies within a framework provided by environmental and sustainability science. Students in this course develop an understanding of the fundamental role that location and scale play in many areas of environmental and earth studies. Along the way students use and learn about the fascinating new tools in the earth scientist’s toolkit including the Global Positioning System (GPS) and easy-to-use mapping systems such as Google Maps, Google Earth, and ArcExplorer. Students purchase a consumer-grade GPS receiver and these units are used in a series of hands-on course activities culminating in a final project where students gather data suitable for use in the study of an environmental or sustainability issue.

What is “The New Geography”? | top

You won’t find courses on the “New Geography” at many colleges just yet but, that’s not surprising, we’re using the phrase to refer to the convergence of new geospatial technologies and the study of environmental and sustainability topics.

The technologies you’ll use in this course are putting the “where” back into every day life. Online mapping systems such as Yahoo maps, MapQuest, Google Earth, Google Maps, MSN Maps, WorldWind and ArcExplorer are changing the way we think about and use geographic information. The effects of this development will only increase as these tools migrate to mobile devices of all kinds.

A striking example of the New Geography can be seen in Google Maps and its MyMaps interface. MyMaps provides an easy way for anyone to create sharable maps showing locations of interest. We use MyMaps in this course but no affiliation is required, anyone can give it a try. To get started, check out the Google’s support page on making custom maps. Browse through the guide and watch the video. A great way to start is by exploring the maps that others have created to see what is possible.

Global Positioning System (GPS) stations like this one in the Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park can detect changes in elevation and horizontal shifts of 1 inch or less per year, helping scientists understand the processes that drive Yellowstone’s active volcanic and earthquake systems.

(Photo courtesy of Christine Puskas, University of Utah.)USGS Fact Sheet 100-03

Sustainability Science | top


Have you heard of “Sustainability Science”? Perhaps not, this relatively new field of scientific inquiry has emerged from the recognition that our planet is a closed system with finite resources, and that our best hope for avoiding future ecological and environmental disasters is to figure out how to manage those resources for use without depletion. And much like the invention of the telescope opened new vistas on the universe, -both literally and figuratively- geo-spatial technologies have fundamentally altered the study of how we interactive with our environment.

The book, A System for Survival; GIS and Sustainable Development, one of the two texts used in this course, says, “Whatever we do as we struggle to sustainably develop our world, we must understand that the geographical concept of scale will apply in both time and space.” This book introduces the idea of sustainability science using a dozen short case studies to draw the connection between geographic location and scale, environmental, ecological management, and public policy.


The Adirondack Atlas | top


The second text used in this course is The Adirondack Atlas. This wonderful book paints a broad picture of New York State’s Adirondack Park using maps based on environmental, historic, management and demographic data sets.

Unlike other parks, the Adirondack Park hosts a wide variety of uses and is the year-round home to over 130,000 people. Writing in the introduction to this book, noted author Bill McKibben explains the significance saying, “Though assailed by acid rain, and now by climate change, it is nonetheless one of the few regions of the face of the earth that can legitimately claim to be growing more whole with each passing year, — it is the earth’s single great example of a successful ecosystem restoration. But if that is all that the visitor notices, then they miss what may be the park’s real glory – the fact that

all this wilderness coexists with human settlement. That this is not Yellowstone – this is something far more real, and hence for more useful as a model. Planners and conservationists from around the globe have started to sense this in the last decade.” McKibben calls the Adirondack park a “biosphere reserve”, a place where ecological values are preserved right along side a wide range of human activities. This may be as an example of what sustainable development is, and how it might be achieved, as currently exists.

GPS Activity | top


Students in this course complete a series of exercises that utilize GPS in the field (the exercises can be done close to home, no travel is required). Starting with simple exercises that introduce the use of the technology students then work to acquire a deeper understanding of the use of GPS as a tool for scientific measurement. Central to this is a clear understanding of how accuracy and precision contribute to uncertainty in geographic data. The GPS activities culminate in a final project, described here.


The project:

For your final project you will apply what you have learned about GPS and other geo-spatial technologies to the study of an environmental or sustainability issue.



  • Use GPS technology to gather a geo-referenced data set
  • Create maps showing the data you collect in context
  • Learn about an environmental or sustainability issue with local implications
  • Communicate your results in a final report with links to maps and screen shots of steps taken. Your final report will be suitable for use in a learning portfolio