GIS at Colby: Putting Data on the Map



GIS Research
Nyhus checks in with Eric Hansen '08 as he works on this research project during Introduction to GIS and Remote Sensing class. Hansen was trying to predict snow deposition and show and ice melt in Grand Canyon National Park.
Photo by Tom Bollier '11

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technology has been part of the curriculum at Colby since long before Google Earth. 

A mapping tool that allows researchers to visualize spatial data for analysis, GIS first appeared at Colby in the 1990s. In their senior capstone course Problems in Environmental Science, professors F. Russell Cole (biology) and David H. Firmage (environmental studies) introduced the technology to students analyzing nearby lakes.

In the lakes project the technology allows students to combine the data they gather on-site with historical maps to analyze how water quality has changed based on changes in land use. “With these maps, you’re not just plotting something,” said Cole. “Because the data is connected to the imagery, you’re actually seeing patterns you might not observe otherwise.”

Colby students have analyzed the potential impact of catastrophic sea level rise, the expected visibility of proposed wind turbines on Cape Cod, the carbon emissions of the Red Sox, and where moose-vehicle collisions are likely to occur in Maine.

While much of the GIS work is focused around the sciences, professors in other disciplines integrate it into their work. Economics Professor Michael Donihue ’79 (currently associate vice president for academic affairs and associate dean of faculty) and his students used GIS to study the impact of migrant workers on Maine and the economic impact of hospitals on greater Waterville. “We’re trying a big push to get social scientists involved in it,” said Cole. “It’s a technology that’s really important in a variety of fields.”

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Philip J. Nyhus, an interdisciplinary scholar trained in GIS and remote sensing (analyzing spatial data), agrees. “One of the reasons I think GIS is an incredibly powerful tool ... is just about everybody can see themselves in a map. So it’s inherently very interdisciplinary. You can be a geologist or an economist or a historian or a biologist, and everybody can see something in a map.”

When Nyhus first came to Colby in 1999, as a postdoctoral fellow through a National Science Foundation grant supporting undergraduate research, one of his charges was to advance GIS. “The fellow position that we hired Philip for was designed to provide some teaching experience for him mentored by experienced teachers, but for him to provide the momentum in the initial stages of bringing GIS to Colby,” said Cole. He did just that.

Fast forward to 2005, when Nyhus (having returned as a tenure-track professor) was tapped by the Chinese government to research the potential for reintroducing tigers into the wild. At that time Colby had the industry-standard software (arcGIS) but only a small space for GIS work.

The opening of the Diamond Building, in 2007, brought a GIS lab, thanks in part to funding from the Oak Foundation. “It has absolutely transformed our ability to teach students GIS and for students to use GIS,” said Nyhus. “It’s a world-class facility.”

The College also added a GIS and quantitative analysis specialist who works with faculty to integrate GIS into coursework and with students to make sense of the sometimes-overwhelming software. “It’s one thing to take spatial data and throw it into the software and then just visualize it, and it’s another to makes sense out of it and to know how to use the various tools that are accessible,” said Manuel Gimond, who came from NASA in 2007 to fill the new position. “They’re quite complex, very overwhelming, and can also be misused—much like statistics.”

For Courtney Larson ’08 and Charles (Jeff) Carroll ’08, who worked on the maps of China this summer, Gimond was indispensable, offering ideas if not answers when they hit a stumbling block. “We wanted to calculate surface area of the park,” said Carroll—not the square footage, but the actual surface area. “When you put elevation in, topography, then it gets stretched out. So we were trying to figure out a good way to calculate that. There’s no tool,” he said.

Gimond got them started, and the students worked it out. “We figured out the geometry behind it and it was pretty straightforward after that,” said Carroll. “But without him, it would have been really difficult to figure out that you could even go about it that way.”

Professionals like Nyhus and Gimond can spend years working with GIS and still discover solutions to new problems, yet students can learn to create maps in a few weeks, sometimes even hours. Nyhus encourages his students to move beyond the creation of simple maps into developing an understanding of the complexities of cartography. “Students almost always want to spend more time just playing with the software,” said Nyhus, “and I tell them that just because you know how to type doesn’t mean you know how to write a really good poem.”

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