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Beyond Continuity of Instruction—Innovating a Geomatics Course Using Problem-based Learning and Open-source Software

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Tech Tools and Tips

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

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Paper Authors


Kweku Tekyi Brown P.E. The Citadel Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Kweku Brown is an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at The Citadel. He received his Civil Engineering Master’s degree from the University of Connecticut and his Doctoral degree at Clemson University. He is active in the transportation engineering communities including the South Carolina Department of Transportation, Institute of Transportation Engineers, and Transportation Research Board. His research focuses on transportation safety utilizing geographic and spatial analysis methods.

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Mary Katherine Watson The Citadel Orcid 16x16

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Mary Katherine Watson is currently an Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at The Citadel. She holds BS and MS degrees in Biosystems Engineering from Clemson University and a PhD in Environmental Engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology. She enjoys, and has invested significantly, in the development of her undergraduate students, serving as past faculty advisor for numerous student groups. Dr. Watson is passionate about improving access to engineering education and serves as the faculty director for a scholarship program to recruit and support high-performing, low-income civil engineering students. Dr. Watson is also interested in understanding and assessing students’ cognitive processes, especially development of cognitive flexibility and interactions with cognitive load. Dr. Watson is the proud recipient of seven teaching awards and six best paper awards. She was previously named the Young Civil Engineer of the Year by the South Carolina Section of ASCE and currently serves as a Senior Associate Editor for the Journal of Civil Engineering Education.

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Elise Barrella P.E. Wake Forest University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Elise Barrella is the founder and CEO of DfX Consulting LLC which offers engineering education and design research, planning and consulting services. She is a registered Professional Engineer and was a Founding Faculty member of the Department of Engineering at Wake Forest University. She is passionate about curriculum development, scholarship and student mentoring on transportation systems, sustainability, and engineering design. Dr. Barrella completed her Ph.D. in Civil Engineering at Georgia Tech where she conducted research in transportation and sustainability as part of the Infrastructure Research Group (IRG). In addition to the Ph.D. in Civil Engineering, Dr. Barrella holds a Master of City and Regional Planning (Transportation) from Georgia Institute of Technology and a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Bucknell University. Dr. Barrella has investigated best practices in engineering education since 2003 (at Bucknell University) and began collaborating on sustainable engineering design research while at Georgia Tech. Prior to joining the WFU faculty, she led the junior capstone design sequence at James Madison University, was the inaugural director of the NAE Grand Challenges Program at JMU, and developed first-year coursework and interdisciplinary electives.

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Geomatics, with an emphasis on developing students’ competencies in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), is a technology-intensive course. During the Spring 2020 semester, XXXX shifted to online continuity of instruction after midterms due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Geomatics instructor was faced with ensuring academic continuity and quality without remote student access to licensed GIS software. The instructor pivoted to use of QGIS, an open-source software, and a carefully-scaffolded project to equip students with essential GIS skills. Test 3 included two equally-weighted parts: (1) conceptual GIS questions and (2) a new open-ended project, which required students to use GIS to investigate a real-world scenario. Synchronous and asynchronous support was provided to afford students the flexibility needed to manage home commitments and technology challenges. Nevertheless, students’ potential for increased (even unmanageable) cognitive load was high, due to the new modality, pedagogy and software.

We investigated the impacts of the post-pandemic Geomatics course on students’ cognitive load and academic performance through the lens of Cognitive Load Theory, which asserts that cognitive overload can hinder learning. Based on students’ NASA Task Load Index scores, Test 3 workload was on par with their face-to-face engineering courses and lower than their online engineering courses. We expect that the cognitive load associated with the project and new software was manageable and not a barrier to learning. Performance on the project was substantially higher than on the closed-ended Test 3 questions, which supports that the project-based approach was integral to helping students achieve GIS competencies. Final exam performance was lower than in previous years, which may suggest that the mid-semester modality shift impacted their ability to fully synthesize material from the semester. Future course offerings will use the project to provide students with authentic engagement with GIS and real-world topics, while QGIS will remain an option for remote instruction.

Brown, K. T., & Watson, M. K., & Barrella, E. (2021, July), Beyond Continuity of Instruction—Innovating a Geomatics Course Using Problem-based Learning and Open-source Software Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36745

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