GEOG 587
Conservation GIS

GEOG 587 Syllabus


GEOG 587 Syllabus Spring 2021

This syllabus is divided into several sections. You can read it sequentially by scrolling down the length of the document. That said, it is essential that you read the entire document as well as material covered in the Orientation. Together these serve the role of our course "contract."


Nathan Piekielek, Ph.D.

John A. Dutton e-Education Institute
001 Pattee Library
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, PA 16802

Phone: 814-865-3703

Email: Canvas Inbox

Office Hours: by appointment

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 Overview

GEOG 587: CONSERVATION GIS. Conservation GIS applies geospatial problem solving to ecological research and resource management issues to enhance conservation planning.

Prerequisites - GEOG 487 or equivalent.

Conservation GIS strives to document Earth's biological diversity, investigate how human activities influence natural systems and work for the conservation of natural and cultural resources by applying appropriate geospatial technologies and methods. Designing, implementing, and evaluating conservation action requires interdisciplinary approaches that blend spatial and temporal information on physical, biological, and socio-economic factors as a basis to establish current conditions, monitor change, and predict possible futures. Practitioners work in support of government natural resource management agencies, non-profit conservation organizations, and environmental consulting companies to address projects from local to global scales. They combine geospatial capability with core concepts from conservation biology, landscape ecology, biodiversity monitoring, environmental impact analysis, watershed assessment, and wildlife management (among others) to address specific conservation challenges.

GEOG 587 provides students the opportunity to expand on the GIS concepts introduced in GEOG 487: "Environmental Applications of GIS" while emphasizing the foundational knowledge that is expected of conservation professionals and is often required in order to be successful in the scientific and highly interdisciplinary conservation arena. Complimenting the excellent technical software training that students recieve in the MGIS program; the course takes a knowledge-building and problem-based approach by guiding students through readings and conceptual frameworks for thinking about conservation problems and asking them to write about their understanding of how and why conservation works and does not work. Rather than teaching a few geospatial tools and techniques that may or may not be applicable to each student's professional setting; the goal of a problem-based approach is to provide students with the understanding and expertise to select and communicate the justification for selecting specific geospatial tools and datasets in their future work. Unlike in the past, today we are fortunate that there is a geospatial tool or algorithm to do just about any spatial operation -- the challenge is in selecting one and communicating with others how and why it works. In completing a final project students are given the opportunity to select a specific geospatial dataset, software, tool or method to learn (along with the instructor's support) that is most applicable to their current and/or future career goals. The student's ability to synthesize information and use the written word to describe their reasoning and decision process will in large part dictate their success in this course.

What will be expected of you?

Like any graduate 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 readings, projects, and related activities. You will 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 interact with your fellow classmates and complete assignments before the published deadline at the end of each lesson.

As mentioned above, your writing and more specifically, technical writing, about conservation planning and problem-solving comprises the majority of your course activities along with a term-long project that will give you the opportunity to select a geospatial dataset or tool with which to expand or increase your technical proficiency.

During the term, I encourage everyone to use the class message boards and e-mail to help each other find relevant materials and learn about interesting applications of Conservation GIS. This is in addition to using the instructor as a resource in developing ideas and identifying a final project topic. Working together as a class is strongly encouraged.

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. Like most things in life, you will get out of it what you put into the course. 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 and your fellow classmates. Discussions are an important part of this course, it is here that we learn from each other by sharing our experience and ideas.

For a more detailed look at what will be covered in each lesson as well as due dates for our assignments and activities, please refer to the semester-specific course schedule that is part of this syllabus (see "Course Schedule").

Course Objectives Overview

Students who successfully complete this course will be prepared to:

  • define and describe Conservation GIS and the interdisciplinary process of identifying conservation targets
  • discuss the history and evolution of contemporary global strategies for environmental/biodiversity conservation
  • understand and apply the theoretical scientific concepts that inform conservation action today
  • describe and contribute a spatial perspective to natural resource planning and management
  • understand and use technical terminology correctly related to conservation, climate change and human dimensions of natural resources
  • design and complete a geospatial conservation project from question/objective development to the communication of results in the form of effective technical writing and the generation of supporting figures and graphics

Required Course Materials

To take this course, you need to have the required course materials listed below. All (other) materials needed for this course are presented online through our course website and in Canvas. To access the online materials, you need to have an active Penn State Access Account user ID and password (used to access the on-line course resources).  If you have any questions about obtaining or activating your Penn State Access Account, please contact the Outreach Helpdesk. They can be reached at 1-800-252-3592 in the US or internationally at 814-865-5403 (country code 001). You may reach them by e-mail at (link sends e-mail).

Currently, there are no required textbooks for this course. For each lesson, you will be directed to a set of required readings that are on library reserve.

A number of software packages will be used for hands-on activities throughout the course. Please refer to the Program Technical Requirements to verify that your computer meets the minimum specifications.

ESRI software (#1 below) is available to all Penn State affiliates including online students. You may choose to identify and download additional software packages for your work in the course based on personal interest. If you are a desktop ESRI ArcGIS Desktop user I encourage you to take this opportunity to begin a transition to using ArcPro as this is the software that will be supported by ESRI into the future. 

Be sure to install and/or test your ESRI (or other software if you already have others in mind for your final project) software during the orientation or first week. The same goes for datasets if you already have a dataset in mind with which you would like to work.

For some general ideas of datasets to use see here, and here. Some other more conservation oriented datasets include:

  1. USGS Protected Area Database
  3. The Nature Conservancy Conservation Gateway
  4. ESRI Living Atlas
  5. eBird
  6. eMammal
  7. NatureServe
  8. World Wildlife Fund
  9. US Fiash and Wildlife Service
  10. And many more -- if you know of great conservation gis datasets please post them to the course discussion page for everyone's benefit.

Trouble-shooting software installtions and data access constraints can take time and you will need your software and data to function without issue later in the course.

  1. ESRI, ArcPro Student Edition: For complete ordering information, see the GIS Program FAQ.
  2. Additional software packages might include:
    2. ArcGIS Online
    3. QGIS
    4. R-Statistical
    5. OSGEO4W suite of open source tools
    6. etc.

Using the Library

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

As a user of Penn State Libraries, you can...

  • search for journal articles (many are even immediately available in full-text)
  • request articles that aren't 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 e-mail
  • ...and much more!

To learn more about their services, see the Library Information for Off-site Users.

Assignments and Grading

Students earn grades that reflect the extent to which they achieve the learning objectives listed above. Opportunities to demonstrate learning are described below. Grades will be based on percentages assigned to several components of the course as follows:

  • Class participation: Individual participation via online discussion forums. Students will be encouraged to post questions and answer each other's questions in the online forums. Starting with lesson 3, students will be responsible for posing questions or observations about the lesson's reading to the course discussion space to which the rest of us will respond. The grading rubric will be posted in Canvas with each assignment. (25%)
  • Mini-papers: Three mini-papers (+/- 1,000 words). Students will be asked to complete three writing assignments throughout the term. Topics will be selected that demonstrate an understanding of important issues in contemporary environmental/biodiversity conservation. (30%)
  • Peer Feedback/Critiques: Students will be asked to provide feedback and constructive critique on three writing assignments submitted by classmates. The grading rubric for peer feedback will be posted in Canvas along with each assignment. (15%)
  • Term Project: The term project for this course involves multiple components that you will create in succession to develop a professional report or proposal. The grading rubric will be posted in Canvas with each assignment.
  • The deliverables and weighting are as follows:
    • Draft term project ideas (2.5%)
    • Project Proposal that will include the following sections: project introduction, research question or project objectives, and proposed methods (2.5%).
    • Final Term Project that will include the following sections: project abstract, introduction (revised from above), question/objective, methods, results, and discussion including figures, graphics or other visualizations appropriate for a geospatial professional (i.e. maps) (25%).

Letter grades will be based on the following percentages:

Grading Scales
Letter Grade Percentages
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.

GEOG 587 Course Schedule

image Printable Schedule

Course length: 10 weeks

Below you will find a brief summary of the lesson objectives for this course and the associated time frames. Assignment information will be located on each lesson's checklist - so you will need to check there for the full set of details and deliverables. Sometimes the details for each lesson can change and it's possible that the syllabus may not be updated as quickly as the lesson checklists so always check specific lesson checklists for the latest details. This course is 10 weeks in length with an orientation week preceding the official start of the course. Each lesson is one week long and opens on Wednesday.

Lesson 0: Orientation
Date: Week 0
  • become familiar with the course and its requirements
  • use the learning environments for the course
  • introduce yourself to your classmates
Readings: Read the orientation materials
  • Complete the steps outlined in the orientation. Required!
Lesson 1:
Date: Week 1
  • discuss whether GIS is a tool or a science
  • identify what science training contributes to environmental conservation professionals and organizations
  • recognize where my perspective on conservation GIS comes from
  • Irwing 2019
  • Wright, Goodchild and Proctor 1997
  • participate in course discussion 
Lesson 2:
Date: Week 2
  • trace the history of parks and protected areas as the primary global environmental/biodiversity conservation strategy
  • identify evidence for and against the effectiveness of parks and protected areas for achieving conservation objectives
  • discuss the role that GIS has played in developing our contemporary understanding of parks and their surroundings
  • Cronin 1995 
  • Dudley et al. 2014
  • Hill et al. 2015
  • participate in course discussion
  • mini-paper writing assignment 2
  • peer feedback/critique 1
Lesson 3:
Date: Week 3
  • define conservation biology and trace its history as a western science discipline
  • define conservation gis and its relationship to conservation biology
  • discuss the role that gis has played in mainstream contemporary environmental conservation and countercultural response
  • Wilson and Primrack 2019 
  • Fairhead et al. 2012
  • Brown 2019
  • participate in course discussion 
  • draft final project ideas
  • peer feedback/critique 2
Lesson 4:
Date: Weeks 4
  • explain what is a complex system in the context of environmental conservation
  • define socio-ecological systems and their characteristics like thresholds, resilience and scale
  • better understand the unique role that GIS plays in discovering and describing socio-ecological systems and how this contributes to environmental conservation efforts
  • Cumming 2017
  • Palomo et al. 2014
  • Sharachchandra et al. 2010
  • participate in course discussion
  • peer feedback/critique 3
Lesson 5:New Environmentalism and Ecoregional Planning
Date: Week 5
  • describe a new paradigm for environmental conservation that includes considerations and quantifications of human benefits of protected areas
  • identify several approaches to landscape-scale conservation planning
  • develop detailed familiarity with The Nature Conservancy’s ecoregional assessments and conservation by design
  • TNC Conservation by Design Guidance Document
  • any TNC ecoregional assessment report
  • participate in course discussion
  • final project proposal
Lesson 6: Adaptive Natural Resource Management
Date: Week 6
  • describe the contemporary paradigm of natural resource management
  • become familiar with the U.S. federal land management planning process and how natural resource management decisions are made
  • be able to define adaptive natural resource management
  • become familiar with structured decision-making, multi-species, multi-criteria decision analysis and the open standards for conservation
  • Allen et al. 2011
  • Tulloch et al. 2015
  • Williams 2010
  • participate in course discussion
  • mini-paper writing assignment 3
  • work on final project
Lesson 7: Modeling for Large Landscape Conservation
Date: Week 7
  • gain conceptual and technical understanding of habitat suitability modeling well enough that you could implement a basic model in your own work
  • understand the theoretical approach and basics of generating and analyzing landscape metrics
  • become familiar with multiple approaches to modeling landscape connectivity for environmental conservation
  • Uddin et al. 2019
  • participate in course discussion
  • work on final project
Lesson 8: Climate Change
Date: Week 8
  • be able to define and correctly use technical terminology related to climate change including exposure, sensitivity, impact, adaptive capacity and vulnerability
  • gain exposure to geospatial and statistical modeling techniques commonly used in the ecological impact of climate change studies including bioclimate niche modeling
  • become familiar with an organized approach to identifying climate vulnerabilities to develop conservation adaptation strategies
  • McGuire et al. 2016
  • Sanderson et al. 2015
  • participate in course discussion,
  • work on final project
Lesson 9: Human Dimensions of Natural Resources
Date: Week 9
  • gain the ability to define what are human dimensions of natural resources
  • be able to list several active areas of research in human dimensions
  • become familiar with the geospatial approaches and methods commonly employed by human dimensions researchers


  • participate in course discussion
  • work on final project
Lesson 10: New Geospatial Technologies for Environmental Conservation
Date: Week 10
  • gain exposure to and familiarity with several new geospatial technologies that are being used in environmental conservation and will likely increase in use in the future
Readings: None
  • participate in course discussion
  • turn in final project

Course Policies

Late Assignments

"Late" is defined as anything turned in after the date and time specified in the Course Calendar on Canvas. A flat penalty of 10% per assignment will be assessed. For example, if you do not turn in a 10 point writing assignment on time, 1 point will be deducted when you turn in that assignment before it is graded.

Citation and Reference Style

Academic Integrity and Citation Style Guide

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 HelpDesk (for World Campus students) or the IT Service Desk (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 camps 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 to foster 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 with you via e-mail, course announcement and/or course discussion forum.