Finals season is upon us.

Fall Final Exam week is now here and I have been dealing with an unending stream of last-minute, panicked questions about the software and the assignments. This semester, I have two sections of GIS I which is required for a few majors. Until our students make it through GIS II (not required except for GIS majors, so usually only the Kool-aid drinkers get that far), they have a love-hate relationship with ESRI’s flagship product. At the start of each semester, until they have had a significant amount of experience with the software, students react with groans as each new assignment is given.

"What's in the box?" "ArcGIS 10 for Desktop Standard."

After a long 15 weeks, students will gain the experience and confidence needed to tackle some difficult, real-world problems with GIS.

"Mastering GIS is akin to riding your first sandworm."

So for those of you that are GIS students, there are three things that I believe you will need to embrace in order to get the most out of GIS:

  1. Read the documentation.
  2. Listen to the software.
  3. Ask the community.

Far too often, the help that most students need is right in front of them. My assignments  are initially linear, but then require the student to explore the topic at hand to solve a problem. If you have used the “Getting to Know ArcGIS Desktop” books, you realize that the book holds your hand so tightly that you only need to be literate in English to be able to complete the chapters. Being able to follow a script may work for some people, but it doesn’t make you a problem solver. The one upside of the software at version 10 is that the help documentation is considerably more robust, searchable and understandable. Even the help that appears in the right hand panel for the geoprocessing tools is very readable and often comes with illustrations. Once you understand the basics, you can identify the path required using the documentation as a guide.

The fear of computers (which in the age of Facebook I’m amazed still exists) often leads students to throw up their hands at the first sign of trouble. When a tool or model fails in ArcGIS 10, the first visual cue is the notification that slides up from the bottom right hand corner of the window. For some students, that registers as “stop everything, panic, and ask for help.” If you dig into the results of the geoprocessing tool, you will receive verbose instructions on why the tool failed. Often, the answer to why it failed is clear and can be quickly remedied. Far too often I have had to inform students that “cannot write output” means you’re saving it to the department network drive instead of your own workspace. When I show the student that the error is more detailed than just that notification window, then they feel a little more confident when using the software.

My Final Exam for GIS I this semester is open book, open notes, open software. Why? Well, it’s hard to police the usage of the computers considering the exam itself is run through Blackboard. Plus, whenever I have had a problem with the software, I often look it up online. The ESRI support site and other GIS sites like Stack Exchange are incredible resources. The questions I ask on an exam are not ones you can quickly Google, so I see no problem in letting the students search through their notes, book and the web for help. As long as you don’t plagiarize the text for the essay questions, I don’t see a problem in tapping into online GIS resources. You’re going to get into the habit of visiting those sites once you become a GIS professional, anyway.

GIS is a difficult topic, but it is not something that is wholly out of reach for most people. It requires patience and discipline, like any other complex tool, to master. If you don’t expect the computer to do all of the thinking for you and you get over your fear of potentially breaking the software or losing your work, you will do fine. So to the GIS students of the world: good luck on finals. I’ve got some grading to do.

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