When Holly Barcus arrived at Macalester, she reimagined GEOG 364 as a series of collaborations with community partners—connections made possible by Mac’s urban location. “We couldn’t do this if we weren’t located in such a dynamic urban environment with such a high concentration of nonprofits,” she says.
Following is a list of previous GEOG 364 collaborations:
- Indian Land Tenure Foundation
- St. Paul Parks and Recreation
- St. Paul Mayor’s Office
- St. Paul Public Schools
- Phillips Community Energy Consortium
- Minnesota Department of Transportation Bikeways
- Land Management Information Office
- Met Council
- Lake Street Project
- Minnesota Historical Society
- Ordway Natural Research Area
Every fall, Mac geography students take their GIS software skills into the real world.
It’s one thing for Macalester geography students to master Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping software in the lab. It’s quite another challenge to apply those skills in the real world, through a partnership with a community organization.
That’s exactly what happens each fall in GEOG 364, the geography department’s GIS Concepts and Applications class. Since 2005, the class, led by professor Holly Barcus, has acted as a consultant with a local organization. Students benefit by learning how to apply GIS software to a real client’s needs, and clients benefit because the software and attendant consulting is usually too pricey for them to employ. Says Barcus, “This is a way for Macalester to give back to the community, while engaging students in the learning process.”
Last fall’s class collaborated with Peace Coffee, a Minneapolis–based fair trade coffee company led by CEO Lee Wallace ’96. The 10 students in the class met regularly with Peace Coffee sales director Jody Treter to learn about the company, its mission, and plans for expansion. Part of the class experience, Barcus says, involves designing a project that can be finished in one semester.
The class split into smaller groups to research possible expansion opportunities on three scales: locally in Minneapolis and St. Paul, regionally in the seven-county metro area, and nationally. In addition to the group work, each student researched a city and generated his or her own set of maps. Together, class members learned how to work “with a real company, on real deadlines, with real goals that are going to make a real impact,” says geography major Slavi Mijatović ’12 (Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina).
Although Emma Swinford ’12 (Columbus, Ohio), another geography major, knew that GIS technology could be applied in real-world situations, thinking outside the lab was one of the semester’s many learning experiences. “I learned about the challenge of working with data sets that aren’t perfect, and variables that are hard to quantify,” she says. “I’d think to myself, ‘I know how to do this theoretically, but how will it work this way?’”
By the end of the semester, the class had prepared a 200-page report with nearly 100 maps, which they presented to Peace Coffee employees at company headquarters five minutes from campus. “The students went way beyond our expectations,” Treter says. “Our management team was really pleased.”
The GIS class collaborations are always successful, says Barcus, because community partners are engaged and trusting and students are creative. “The students come to class with a real sense of engagement and open-mindedness,” Barcus says. “They take it very seriously. This isn’t just an assignment to them—it’s an investment.”