Story – GIS in Natural Resources

Applications of Geographic Information Systems in Natural Resources

Janet SilbernagelENVIR ST/LAND ARC/SOIL SCI 695

Spring 2015-2016

Instructor: Janet Silbernagel, Professional Programs Director and Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Studies

This advanced-level course covers GIS concepts and applications through four components: 1. An online interactive lesson; 2. A face-to-face recap discussion; 3. Weekly hands-on exercises; and 4. Larger, independent ‘challenges’ at the end of each 5-week module.



Silbernagel reformatted an on-campus course into a blended learning model after participating in 2014 in the blended learning fellowship program hosted by the Division of Information Technology (DoIT).

Knowing that she would be preparing a set of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) online training modules for the Nelson Institute’s Environmental Conservation professional master’s program, Silbernagel sought to find a way to repurpose this content into a blended learning format of the 695 course Applications of GIS in Natural Resources, which Silbernagel teaches every other spring.

This spring, Silbernagel is teaching the same GIS material in two ways: through all-online modules for Environmental Conservation students, and through a blended learning version of the 695 course for students from any UW-Madison undergraduate or graduate program. This semester’s 695 class includes upper-level undergraduate students and graduate students from Landscape Architecture, Water Resources Management, Urban and Regional Planning, Forest and Wildlife Ecology, and the College of Engineering.

The original format of the 695 course included Monday and Wednesday face-to-face lectures and a two-hour weekly lab session. The crux of Silbernagel’s blended learning model is to convert the Monday lecture into an engaging online lesson.

Using the Case Scenario/Critical Reader tool developed by DoIT, Silbernagel has designed a series of weekly interactive online lessons. Students click through richly illustrated pages with limited text, hyperlinks, and occasional brief knowledge checks, or quizzes, which must be completed before the student can proceed in the lesson.

Capture_978_2    Capture_695_Lesson7a Capture_695_Lesson3b Capture_695_Lesson3a




“I was excited about blended learning because with GIS, you often want somebody to stand over your shoulder and point, but you really have to take ownership in working with it yourself,” Silbernagel says. “And because it’s so graphically oriented, you can make it intriguing and enticing.“

“I didn’t want it to be me talking over a PowerPoint,” she continues. “Instead of listening to a lecture, students are interacting with the material.”

Each weekly online lesson is broken into three sections, first presenting the conceptual theory behind the material, followed by practical applications of the material and what it will look like in GIS software. At the end of the lesson, students submit their “muddiest point,” or what they found least clear in the lesson. Silbernagel reviews these student responses and summarizes them, formatting each Wednesday face-to-face class as a discussion recap.

“I get a sense of what students are asking and around what themes, then I use the Wednesday class time to respond directly to their points, so it’s responsive,” she explains.

Another component of Silbernagel’s blended learning format is that one of the course’s three lab sections is designed as a virtual lab, with assignments completed online through Learn@UW. While two lab sections still meet in-person in campus lab facilities, the virtual lab is available for students who commute from long distances or who, for whatever reason, would rather complete the work on their own.

While Silbernagel estimates that the course’s new blended model may require more of her time than the fully face-to-face class, at least in its development stages, she is pleased with its execution and she values the additional student feedback and data points gleaned from the online lessons, for example being able to see how long it took students to complete each lesson.

“I really like how the interactive lessons work and that I can see how students are tracking through it,” she says. “There are a lot of useful tricks that I get out of it that I don’t think you could get from an in-person lecture.”

Another big plus, Silbernagel notes, is the open, interactive dialogue with students.

“I’m able to put more time into being responsive to students’ learning,” she says, “responding directly to what they’re getting from the lesson and then trying to apply it.”