GEOG 487
Environmental Challenges in Spatial Data Science

GEOG 487 Syllabus


Spring 2024 Syllabus

Environmental Challenges in Spatial Data Science

This syllabus is divided into several sections, as outlined below. It is essential that you read the entire document as well as the material covered in the Orientation. Together, these serve the role of our course "contract."

  • Instructor Information
  • Course Overview
  • Course Objectives
  • Required Course Materials
  • Assignments and Grading
  • Course Schedule
  • Course Policies

Instructor Information

Spring 1 (January - March)

Ryan Baxter, Associate Teaching Professor
215 Walker Building
Department of Geography
Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16802

Engagement and Communication

  • Email: To ensure a timely response, please use the Canvas email system to contact me.
  • Office Hours: Please use the Canvas email system.

Course Overview

GEOG 487 is an elective course in the Master of Geographic Information Systems degree program, which is offered exclusively through Penn State’s World Campus. It is also one of the optional capstone courses that lead to Penn State’s Postbaccalaureate Certificate in GIS. The course consists of projects, associated readings, quizzes, and discussions about concepts, operations, and tools in geographic information systems and spatial analysis in a variety of environmental scenarios.

It provides real-world activity-based scenarios covering such operations as data acquisition and preparation, raster calculations, surface analysis, statistical analysis, and interpolation. Students who successfully complete the course are able to use GIS tools to access, display, manipulate, edit, and analyze geospatial data. Students will be exposed to a variety of GIS tools, data formats, sources of data, and environmental challenges they are likely to encounter in a career involving GIS and the environment. GEOG 487 is designed specifically for adult professionals who are able to study only on a part-time basis and at a distance. The course is ten weeks in length.

What will be expected of you?

Like any upper-level course, you will be challenged to move beyond the knowledge and skills that you bring to the class. You can expect to be busy; as a rough estimate, you should allow 10-12 hours per week for class assignments. Included in the 10-12 hours each week is time to complete projects and related activities. You'll be glad to know that you don't need to show up for a class at a certain time! All you need to do is complete assignments before the published deadline at the end of each week.

My colleagues and I have worked hard to make this the most effective and convenient educational experience possible. How much and how well you learn is ultimately up to you. You will succeed if you are diligent about keeping up with the class schedule and if you take advantage of opportunities to communicate with me, as well as with your fellow students.

Course Objectives

GEOG 487: Environmental Applications of GIS builds on material covered in the prerequisites (GEOG 483: Problem Solving with GIS and GEOG 484: GIS Database Development or equivalent experience. The course lessons are designed to build upon ideas and techniques in previous lessons and will flow in logic. The course first introduces resources to help you succeed in the class. It then covers how to obtain data, customize it, analyze it, and then interpret and present the results. After which, it provides a series of environmental case studies demonstrating a variety of analysis tools and techniques. Particular steps are only explained in detail once, and you will be expected to apply this knowledge to complete later lessons. Finally, the course culminates in a final that requires you to apply the information from the course to explore an environmental question on your own.

Students who successfully complete this course will be prepared to:

  • describe a broad range of current environmental challenges;
  • understand how spatial analysis can be used to address environmental questions;
  • identify and acquire sources of publicly available datasets relevant to current environmental challenges;
  • locate and interpret metadata;
  • describe common geospatial data formats; be able to display and manipulate them using GIS software;
  • customize data and perform analysis using ArcGIS Pro;
  • design and conduct a workflow using spatial analyst and other GIS tools to address specific environmental questions;
  • present results of spatial analysis in a professional format such as maps, tables, interactive websites, and videos;
  • utilize resources other than ArcGIS Pro, such as ArcGIS Online, ArcGIS Experience Builder, and Prezi.

Required Course Materials

The following GIS software is required for this course: ArcGIS Pro, and ArcGIS Spatial Analyst Extension.

The instructor will provide directions on how to install the most current version of ArcGIS Pro during the first week of class. We will use a variety of free online software programs in this course. You will need administrative rights to your computer to complete all of the required activities.

Using the Library

Just like on-campus students, as a Penn State student, you have a wealth of library resources available to you!

You can...

  • search for journal articles (many are even immediately available in full-text);
  • request articles that are not available in full text and have them delivered electronically;
  • borrow books and other materials and have them delivered to your doorstep;
  • access materials that your instructor has put on Electronic Reserve;
  • talk to reference librarians in real-time using chat, phone, and email
  • ...and much more!

To learn more, see the Online Students Use of the Library.


Penn State honors and values the socioeconomic diversity of our students. If you require assistance with the costs of textbooks for this course, please contact your academic advisor. For additional needs, related to socioeconomic status, please visit Project Cahir or visit the Office of Student Care and Advocacy at 220 Boucke Building or call 814-863-2020.

Assignments and Grading

Students earn grades that reflect the extent to which they achieve the learning objectives listed above. Opportunities to demonstrate learning include the following, and grades will be based on percentages assigned to each of several components of the course as follows:

  • Quizzes: Graded quiz questions related to data and analysis outputs you create throughout the lesson. This gives you immediate feedback on a large portion of your lesson grade.
  • Canvas Discussion Posts: You will be required to create a short discussion post for most lessons. They may contain maps, tables, graphics, and interpretation of results.
  • Static & Interactive Maps: Maps included in reports must appear professional to receive credit. Examples of unacceptable features include:
    • default legend settings (e.g., excessive decimal places, cryptic layer names, layers not displayed on your map shown in your legend);
    • default scale bar settings (e.g., odd units such as decimal degrees, odd scale bar divisions, and labels);
    • titles that do not provide information about what the map shows (e.g., "Map 1" or "Deliverable 1");
    • Illegible text (too small, difficult to read colors).
  • Final Project: The final project includes a graphic workflow and video presentation.
  • Additional Credit: You can earn up to 15 points for participation in the EDGE international virtual exchange student collaboration. There are three 5-point extra credit opportunities (icebreaker activities, discussion activities, and a presentation) that require above-average participation. 

Note that all deliverables are due by 11:59 PM "in the Time Zone where you live" on the lesson's assigned due date. See the course calendar in Canvas for specific lesson due dates.

There are also a variety of ungraded activities designed to assist you in fully understanding the concepts introduced in each lesson. These are as follows:

  • Example Answers: Screenshots of intermediate datasets produced in the step-by-step activities. These allow you to check if you have the correct answer before proceeding to the next step. These examples appear in orange boxes with a stop sign.
  • Critical Thinking Questions: Questions to make you stop and think about why we are doing a particular task. These questions appear in green boxes with a light bulb icon.
  • Try This, Activities: Voluntary ungraded activities suggested by the instructor to help you practice lesson concepts. These activities appear in purple boxes with "Try This" text.
  • Tips and Tricks: related to the tools and concepts covered in the lessons. These appear in blue boxes with an information icon.
  • Discussion Forums: Everyone has something they can contribute to the class. Some students have many years of professional experience in environmental and related industries, some have advanced technical skills, and others are just starting their careers. Please use the forums to exchange information and help each other with difficult concepts. Share!

Letter grades will be based on the percentages below.

Note: You must complete ALL required assignments to earn a passing grade in the course.

A 90-100%
A- 87.5-89.9%
B+ 85-87.4%
B 80-84.9%
B- 77.5-79.9%
C+ 75-77.4%
C 70-74.9%
D 60-69.9%
F <60%
X Unsatisfactory (student did not participate)

Percentages refer to the proportion of all possible points earned by the student.

Late Grading Policy

  • Effective as of 11:59 PM, in the time zone where you live, on the day of the lesson's due date.
  • Up to 1 week late - Minus 10% of total possible lesson points per day past the due date.
  • Over 1 week late - Only possible to earn 20% of possible lesson points.

If you are not able to meet a particular deadline, make sure to contact the instructor to request an extension before the due date. No-penalty extensions will be granted on a case-by-case basis.

GEOG 487 Course Schedule

imagePrintable Schedule

Course length: 10 weeks
Total Possible Points: 1,000 points

Orientation Activities: Ungraded

Lessons 1-8: 100 points each (80% of course points), 1 week each.

Final Project: 200 points (20% of course points), 2 weeks.

Date: Week 0
Objectives: At the successful completion of the Course Orientation, you will be able to:
  • navigate between this course text and the Canvas course management system;
  • articulate your expectations about how and what you will learn in your online course;
  • understand how and what instructors expect you to learn in your online course;
  • locate key information about the course, including assignments, due dates, technical information, places to get help, and course policies;
  • understand course policies, including academic integrity;
  • communicate with instructors and fellow students.

Orientation Materials


  1. Introduce yourself.
  2. Complete the Initial Course Survey.
  3. Confirm your software version matches those listed in the Syllabus.
  4. Complete the Orientation Quiz.

Lesson 1: Context of Environmental GIS Professionals
Date: Week 1
Objectives: At the successful completion of Lesson 1, you will be able to:
  • investigate the concepts of conservation, preservation, and ecosystem services;
  • explore three scenarios of environmental challenges;
  • participate in a dicussion about what it means to analyze spatial data related to environmental challenges.
Readings: Lesson Materials
  1. Canvas Discussion Forum Post
  2. Response Discussion Forum Posts

Lesson 2: Find and Share Environmental Data
Date: Week 2
Objectives: At the successful completion of Lesson 2, you will be able to:
  • locate publicly available GIS datasets for environmental projects;
  • choose which format(s) are best suited for your project;
  • explore opportunities and limitations of datasets by reviewing metadata;
  • share data and maps using ArcGIS Online.
Videos: Lesson Materials
  1. Lesson 2 Step-by-Step Activity
  2. Lesson 2 Advanced Activity
  3. Lesson 2 Quiz
  4. Canvas Discussion Post
  5. Peer Review (optional)

Lesson 3: Wetland Restoration and Invasive Species
Date: Week 3
Objectives: At the successful completion of Lesson 3, you will be able to:
  • load online data services within ArcGIS Pro;
  • download raw GIS files and customize them for a specific project;
  • explore the pros and cons of publicly available data;
  • view and interpret time-series aerial photos.
Readings: Lesson Materials
  1. Lesson 3 Step-by-Step Activity
  2. Lesson 3 Advanced Activity
  3. Lesson 3 Quiz

Lesson 4: Wetland Restoration and Invasive Species Part II
Date: Week 4
Objectives: At the successful completion of Lesson 4, you will be able to:
  • explore and interpret results from GIS operations;
  • use ArcMap tools to visually compare multiple datasets 
  • use ArcMap tools to statistically compare multiple datasets.

Lesson Materials

  1. Lesson 4 Step-by-Step Activity
  2. Lesson 4 Advanced Activity
  3. Lesson 4 Quiz
  4. Canvas Discussion Post
  5. Peer Review (optional)

Lesson 5: Land Use Change
Date: Week 5
Objectives: At the successful completion of Lesson 5, you will be able to:
  • reclassify grid data using Spatial Analyst;
  • tabulate areas using Spatial Analyst;
  • calculate change over time using tabular data.
Readings: Lesson Materials
  1. Lesson 5 Step-by-Step Activity
  2. Lesson 5 Advanced Activity
  3. Lesson 5 Quiz

Lesson 6: Forests, Carbon Sequestration, and Climate Change
Date: Week 6
Objectives: At the successful completion of Lesson 6, you will be able to:
  • create shapefiles from tabular GPS data;
  • interpolate point data to raster grids;
  • customize the Spatial Analyst environment settings.
Readings: Lesson Materials
  1. Lesson 6 Step-by-Step Activity
  2. Lesson 6 Advanced Activity
  3. Lesson 6 Quiz

Lesson 7: The Role of Forests
Date: Week 7
Objectives: At the successful completion of Lesson 7, you will be able to:
  • convert vector data to raster data using Spatial Analyst;
  • create raster regions using Spatial Analyst;
  • calculate thickness, area, and perimeter of raster regions;
  • share analysis results created in ArcGIS Pro using ArcGIS Online.
Readings and Videos: Lesson Materials
  1. Lesson 7 Step-by-Step Activity
  2. Lesson 7 Advanced Activity
  3. Lesson 7 Quiz
  4. Canvas Discussion Post
  5. Peer Review (optional)

Lesson 8: Groundwater Vulnerability Modeling
Date: Week 8
Objectives: At the successful completion of Lesson 8, you will be able to:
  • calculate slope from Digital Elevation Models;
  • create weighted overlays of multiple grids using the Raster Calculator.
  • identify suitable locations based on multiple input criteria using Spatial Analyst;;

Lesson Materials

  1. Lesson 8 Step-by-Step Activity
  2. Lesson 8 Advanced Activity
  3. Lesson 8 Quiz

Final Project: Lead a GIS Team
Date: Weeks 9-10
Objectives: At the successful completion of the Final Project, you will be able to:
  • apply concepts and tools from previous lessons;
  • design a Visual GIS Work Plan;
  • consider your target audience and their requirements;
  • persuade a client to hire you and your GIS team.
  • Using the Five-Step GIS Analysis Process
  • Thinking Spatially, Directions Magazine
  • Esri Story Maps Advice:
    • How to Tell Your Story Using Esri's Storytelling Apps
    • Story Telling with Maps - Workflows and Best Practices
    • The Five Principles of Effective Storytelling
    • Video: A Map for Every Story
    • Telling Stories with Maps Whitepaper
  • Visual GIS Work Plan
  • Video Presentation
  • Canvas Discussion Post
  • Peer Review (required)

Class Support Services

Penn State Online offers online tutoring to World Campus students in math, writing, and some business classes. Tutoring and guided study groups for residential students are available through Penn State Learning.

Course Policies

Technical Requirements

For this course, we recommend the minimum technical requirements outlined on the World Campus Technical Requirements page, including the requirements listed for same-time, synchronous communications. If you need technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the IT Service Desk (for World Campus students) or Penn State's IT Help Portal (for students at all other campus locations).

Internet Connection

Access to a reliable Internet connection is required for this course. A problem with your Internet access may not be used as an excuse for late, missing, or incomplete coursework. If you experience problems with your Internet connection while working on this course, it is your responsibility to find an alternative Internet access point, such as a public library or Wi-Fi ® hotspot.

Mixed Content

This site is considered a secure web site, which means that your connection is encrypted. We do, however, link to content that isn't necessarily encrypted. This is called mixed content. By default, mixed content is blocked in Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome. This may result in a blank page or a message saying that only secure content is displayed. Follow the directions on our Technical Requirements page to view the mixed content.


This course must be viewed using the latest version of Firefox, Safari, Chrome, or Edge. Internet Explorer is not supported. If you use any other browser, or if you are not using the latest version of your browser, some pages containing equations may not render properly. In addition, javascript must be enabled for equations to render properly. If you have any issues with equations not rendering properly, please update your browser to the latest version or try using a different browser. If you need additional technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the HelpDesk (for World Campus students) or the IT Service Desk (for students at all other campus locations).

Penn State E-mail Accounts

All official communications from Penn State are sent to students' Penn State e-mail accounts. Be sure to check your Penn State account regularly, or forward your Penn State e-mail to your preferred e-mail account, so you don't miss any important information.

Academic Integrity

This course follows the procedures for academic integrity of Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Penn State defines academic integrity as "the pursuit of scholarly activity in an open, honest and responsible manner." Academic integrity includes "a commitment not to engage in or tolerate acts of falsification, misrepresentation, or deception." In particular, the University defines plagiarism as "the fabrication of information and citations; submitting others' work from professional journals, books, articles, and papers; submission of other students' papers, lab results or project reports and representing the work as one's own." Penalties for violations of academic integrity may include course failure. To learn more, see Penn State's Academic Integrity Training for Students

Course Copyright

All course materials students receive or to which students have online access are protected by copyright laws. Students may use course materials and make copies for their own use as needed, but unauthorized distribution and/or uploading of materials without the instructor’s express permission is strictly prohibited. University Policy AD 40, the University Policy Recording of Classroom Activities and Note Taking Services addresses this issue. Students who engage in the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials may be held in violation of the University’s Code of Conduct, and/or liable under Federal and State laws.

For example, uploading completed labs, homework, or other assignments to any study site constitutes a violation of this policy.

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University's educational programs. Every Penn State campus has an office for students with disabilities. The Office for Student Disability Resources website provides contact information for Campus Disability Coordinators at every Penn State campus. For further information, please visit the Office for Student Disability Resources website.

In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled. You will participate in an intake interview and provide documentation. See documentation guidelines at Applying for Services from Student Disability Resources. If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations.

Change in Normal Campus Operations

In case of weather-related delays or other emergency campus disruptions or closures at the University, this online course will proceed as planned. Your instructor will inform you if there are any extenuating circumstances regarding content or activity due dates in the course due to these delays or closures. If you are affected by a weather-related emergency, please contact your instructor at the earliest possible time to make special arrangements.

Reporting Educational Equity Concerns

Penn State takes great pride in fostering a diverse and inclusive environment for students, faculty, and staff. Acts of intolerance, discrimination, or harassment due to age, ancestry, color, disability, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religious belief, sexual orientation, or veteran status are not tolerated (Policy AD29 Statement on Intolerance) and can be reported through Educational Equity via Report Bias.

Counseling and Psychological Services

Many students at Penn State face personal challenges or have psychological needs that may interfere with their academic progress, social development, or emotional well-being.  The university offers a variety of confidential services to help you through difficult times, including individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, consultations, online chats, and mental health screenings.  These services are provided by staff who welcome all students and embrace a philosophy respectful of clients’ cultural and religious backgrounds, and sensitive to differences in race, ability, gender identity, and sexual orientation.  Services include the following:

Counseling and Psychological Services at University Park  (CAPS): 814-863-0395
Counseling Services at Commonwealth Campuses
Penn State Crisis Line (24 hours/7 days/week): 877-229-6400
Crisis Text Line (24 hours/7 days/week): Text LIONS to 741741

Military Personnel

Veterans and currently serving military personnel and/or spouses with unique circumstances (e.g., upcoming deployments, drill/duty requirements, disabilities, VA appointments, etc.) are welcome and encouraged to communicate these, in advance if possible, to the instructor in the case that special arrangements need to be made.

Connect Online with Caution

Penn State is committed to educational access for all. Our students come from all walks of life and have diverse life experiences. As with any other online community, the lack of physical interaction in an online classroom can create a false sense of anonymity and security. While one can make new friends online, digital relationships can also be misleading. Good judgment and decision-making are critical when choosing to disclose personal information to others whom you do not know.

Deferred Grades

If you are prevented from completing this course within the prescribed amount of time for reasons that are beyond your control, it is possible to have the grade deferred with the concurrence of the instructor, following Penn State Deferred Grade Policy 48-40. To seek a deferred grade, you must submit a written request (by e-mail or U.S. post) to the instructor describing the reason(s) for the request. Non-emergency permission for filing a deferred grade must be requested before the beginning of the final examination period.  It is up to the instructor to determine whether or not you will be permitted to receive a deferred grade. If permission is granted, you will work with the instructor to establish a communication plan and a clear schedule for completion within policy.  If, for any reason, the coursework for the deferred grade is not complete by the assigned time, a grade of "F" will be automatically entered on your transcript.


This course will be conducted entirely online. There will be no set class meeting times, but you will be required to complete weekly assignments with specific due dates. Many of the assignments are open for multiple days, so it is your responsibility to complete the work early if you plan to travel or participate in national holidays, religious observances or University approved activities.

If you need to request an exception due to a personal or medical emergency, contact the instructor directly as soon as you are able. Such requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Diversity, Inclusion, and Respect

Penn State is “committed to creating an educational environment which is free from intolerance directed toward individuals or groups and strives to create and maintain an environment that fosters respect for others” as stated in Policy AD29 Statement on Intolerance. All members of this class are expected to contribute to a respectful, welcoming, and inclusive environment and to interact with civility.

For additional information, see:

Mandated Reporting Statement

Penn State’s policies require me, as a faculty member, to share information about incidents of sex-based discrimination and harassment (discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, and retaliation) with Penn State’s Title IX coordinator or deputy coordinators, regardless of whether the incidents are stated to me in person or shared by students as part of their coursework. For more information regarding the University's policies and procedures for responding to reports of sexual or gender-based harassment or misconduct, please visit Penn State's Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention & Response website.

Additionally, I am required to make a report on any reasonable suspicion of child abuse in accordance with the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law.


Please note that the specifics of this Course Syllabus can be changed at any time, and you will be responsible for abiding by any such changes. All changes will be communicated to you via e-mail, course announcement and/or course discussion forum.