The Nature of Geographic Information

GEOG 482 Syllabus (Expired 2017)


This syllabus is divided into several sections. You can read it sequentially by scrolling down the length of the document or by clicking on any of the links below to "jump" to a specific section.


Ryan Baxter
Adrienne Goldsberry
Beth King

Jim Sloan

John A. Dutton e-Education Institute
2217 Earth and Engineering Sciences
College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, Penn State
University Park, PA 16802

  • Email: Please use the Canvas Inbox to send messages to the instructor
  • Office Hours: By appointment

NOTE: The instructor will read and respond to course messages and discussion forum posts at least once per day during the week (Monday through Sunday); though typically much more often than that.

Course Overview

GEOG 482: THE NATURE OF GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION. Orientation to the properties of geographic data and the practice of distance learning. Prerequisites: None.

This course explores the nature of geographic information. To study the nature of something is to investigate its essential characteristics and qualities. To understand the nature of the energy produced in a coal-fired power plant, you would need to study the properties, morphology, and geographic distribution of coal. By the same reasoning, I believe that a good approach to understanding the information produced by GIS is to investigate the properties of geographic data and the technologies, professions, and institutions that produce it.

GEOG 482 is the required first course in Penn State's Postbaccalaureate Certificate Program in GIS and Master of GIS (MGIS) degree programs, both of which are offered through the University's World Campus. These programs are designed specifically for adult learners who may have firsthand experience with GIS, but who lack formal education in geography or geographic information science. We believe that knowledge of the fundamental properties of geographic data is a necessary precursor to wise and skillful use of GIS software. The goal of this first course, Geography 482: Nature of Geographic Information, is to help you develop that knowledge.

Like other courses in our online programs, GEOG 482 is a "paced" course. "Paced" means that the course has a start date, an end date, and a weekly schedule of activities and assignments. However, students are free to study at times most convenient to them; you never have to log in at a particular time or place. The course lasts ten weeks, plus an additional week for orientation prior to the official start date of the course. Assignment due dates are posted in a course calendar which students access in the University's online course management system, Canvas. See the "Assignments" section of this syllabus for more information.

Along with the course calendar, registered students will find online quizzes, a gradebook, communications tools, and other useful features in Canvas. For more information about the course environment, see the "Course Management System" section of the course Orientation.

Although the class never meets face to face, you will find that there are plenty of opportunities to interact with instructors and fellow students in Canvas. One of the most interesting aspects of the class is that students tend to have a lot of professional experience to share. See the "Communication" section of the course Orientation to review all the ways in which you can get, and stay, in touch. Whether you have a question or a comment, you can expect to receive a reply from instructors or fellow students within 24 hours -- often sooner.

What is expected of you?

Most students report that they devote eight to twelve hours per week working on course activities and assignments. Your workload may be more or less, depending on your prior experience with computing and the web in general, and with GIS in particular.

My colleagues and I have worked hard to make this the most effective and convenient educational experience possible. Online learning may be a novel learning experience to you, but in one sense it is no different than a traditional college class: 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 instructors and fellow students.

Course Objectives

The overall goals of GEOG 482 are to:

  1. promote understanding of the geographic information science and technology (GIS&T) enterprise;
  2. promote geographic information literacy - the ability to identify the kind(s) of geographic information needed for a particular task; to determine whether needed data are available; to acquire and assess the quality of the data if available, or specify the technologies and professions needed to produce new data if necessary; and
  3. promote effective distance education by providing high quality open courseware and detailed individual critiques in response to every student project assignment.

The particular objectives of each chapter of the course text are outlined in the printable schedule below.

The objectives of the three project assignments are as follows.

Project 1: Plotting Coordinates and Map Projections

  1. Specify locations using geographic, UTM, and State Plane coordinates.
  2. Utilize geographic coordinates in both degrees-minutes-seconds and decimal degrees formats.
  3. Produce a map projection using specialized mapping software.
  4. Produce metadata describing map projection characteristics.
  5. Submit an illustrated project report that demonstrates the ability to apply geospatial concepts discussed in Chapter 2.

Project 2: Mapping Census Data

  1. Use an online mapping system to create thematic maps and legends.
  2. Interpret geographic patterns revealed in choropleth maps.
  3. Compare the effects on apparent patterns caused by different data classification schemes.
  4. Calculate map scale as a representative fraction.
  5. Submit an illustrated project report that demonstrates the ability to apply geospatial concepts discussed in Chapters 3 and 4.

Project 3: Acquiring Geographic Data

  1. Find, interpret, and report technical information that describes a particular data product, service, or mapping technology.
  2. Determine the availability of a data product or service for your area of interest.
  3. Describe how particular data products can be acquired via the World Wide Web, and show evidence that you can figure out how to acquire them.
  4. Submit an illustrated report that demonstrates the ability to compose original English text at a college level.

Required Course Materials

To participate in GEOG 482, you need access to the Internet, access to the course text, and access to Penn State's course management system, Canvas. The course text is open to anyone with Internet access. Access to Canvas (and to course instructors) requires a Penn State computing account, which registered students acquire by paying an annual technology fee. Students are asked to download and use a free software application called "Global Mapper" to open and view sample digital data. No additional materials or proprietary software or data are required for GEOG 482.

For more information about how to register for GEOG 482, see our Start Today page.

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


Registered students earn academic credit at Penn State by completing the following assignments. Assignment instructions are published at the corresponding module in Canvas.

8 Weekly Quizzes, accounting for 25% of your grade

Students have access to more than 40 online quizzes in Canvas. Quizzes are open-book, multiple choice format, and provide feedback immediately after submission. The purpose of these quizzes is to help you self-assess your understanding of the course text. Many quiz questions also challenge students' ability to think beyond what they have read.

In addition to ungraded practice quizzes, starting with Chapter 2, each chapter includes one cumulative graded quiz. Like the practice quizzes, the graded quizzes are open-book format, but graded quizzes can only be submitted once. You are welcome to open, view, and even print quizzes, and to consult them while reading the text. Students who are diligent about reading the text are likely to perform well on the graded quizzes. Your performance on graded quizzes will account for one quarter of your final course grade. Due dates for graded quizzes appear under the Canvas Calendar.

1 Cumulative Exam, accounting for 25% of your grade

A single, cumulative online exam will appear in Canvas during the final two weeks of class. The exam is identical to the graded quizzes in format and style. Most students will find the exam to be fairly challenging. It consists of 32 multiple choice and matching questions. By passing the final exam, you will have demonstrated that you are sufficiently acquainted with the fundamentals to proceed to Geography 483 in which you will begin to learn how concepts are implemented in GIS software.

3 Class Projects, accounting for 50% of your grade

In conjunction with weekly chapters, registered students are assigned three graded projects. Projects require you to conduct research (primarily via the web), perform tasks, and prepare reports that demonstrate your ability to apply concepts discussed in the course text. Reports are prepared as word processing documents (e.g.., Microsoft Word) and uploaded to instructors via Canvas. Grading assistants provide detailed individual critiques and itemized scores in response to every student report.

Depending on your previous experience and comfort level with computing, you will find projects to be moderately to highly challenging. The key to success is to pace yourself, pay close attention to the grading criteria, and take time to write at a professional level. Three to four weeks are provided to complete each project. Due dates appear under the Canvas Calendar.

We expect your project reports to be original. You may build upon ideas, words, and illustrations produced by others, but you must paraphrase, cite, and reference such sources. Reports that contain unacknowledged contributions by others are considered to be plagiarized. We use the plagiarism detection service to evaluate the originality of students' work. Detailed guidelines about how to prepare an original report are included in the "Academic Integrity Guide" that appears in the Resources section of the course text.


Course grades are awarded on the basis of weighted percentages of assignment points earned. You can earn up to 730 assignment points through graded quizzes, up to 290 points through a final exam, and up to 350 points through project assignments. At the conclusion of the course your instructor calculates the percentages of possible points you earned in each of the three categories of assignments. Percentages associated with quizzes and the exam each account for one quarter of your total course score. The percentage of points you earned on projects accounts for half.

Breakdown of each assignment's value as a percentage of total grade
8 Weekly Quizzes 25%
1 Cumulative Exam 25%
3 Class Projects 50%
Total 100%

Finally, letter grades are awarded on the following basis:

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%
W Withdrew

Percentages refer to the proportion of all possible points earned by the student. Note: Students need to earn at least a "C" grade in all four courses to be eligible for the Postbaccalaureate Certificate. Only credits associated with a grade of "B-" or higher may be counted toward the MGIS degree.

"Above and Beyond" Points

At Penn State the course grade "A" (which corresponds to at least 90 percent of possible points in this course) denotes "exceptional achievement." In this course, project reports that fulfill minimum requirements earn a score of 90 out of 100 points. Up to 10 additional points are awarded for report elements that exceed minimum requirements.

Assignment Due Dates

The Certificate Program in GIS and the MGIS degree program were designed specifically for adult professionals who need to study part-time while they work full-time. We expect that students will occasionally encounter scheduling conflicts (Instructors do, too!). When conflicts arise, students should notify instructors prior to deadlines to request extensions. Reasonable requests are granted without penalty.

Due dates can be found in the Course Calendar, and the late policy for project assignments is part of each project rubric.

GEOG 482 Course Schedule

image Printable Schedule
Date Week 0
Objectives Get a head start
Readings Read me first
Chapter 1: Data and Information
Date Week 1
  • Define a geographic information system.
  • Recognize and name basic database operations from verbal descriptions.
  • Recognize and name basic geographic data models from verbal descriptions.
Readings Course Orientation, Chapter 1 in The Nature of Geographic Information
  • Lounge forum post
  • Initial Course Survey
  • Project 0
Chapter 2: Scales and Transformations
Date Week 2
  • Calculate map scale using representative fractions.
  • Describe the general relationship between map scale and the detail and accuracy of geographic databases.
  • Compare and contrast the characteristics of geographic and plane coordinate systems.
  • Specify positions on the Earth's surface using geographic and plane coordinates.
  • Convert coordinates between different systems and formats.
  • Explain the concept of a horizontal datum.
  • Calculate the change in a coordinate location due to a change from one horizontal datum to another.
  • Recognize the kind of transformation that is appropriate to georegister two or more data sets.
  • Recognize general categories and distortion characteristics of several common map projections.
Readings Chapter 2 in The Nature of Geographic Information
Assignments Chapter 2 Graded Quiz
Chapter 2: Scales and Transformations (continued)
Date Week 3
Objectives Same as Week 2
Readings Chapter 2 in The Nature of Geographic Information (continued)
  • Gateway Quiz for Project 1
  • Project 1: Plotting Coordinates and Projections
Chapter 3: Census Data and Thematic Mapping
Date Week 4
  • Discriminate between different levels of measurement of attribute data.
  • Use percentile and equal interval classification schemes to divide census attribute data into categories suitable for choropleth mapping.
  • Explain the differences between counts, rates, and densities, and identify the types of map symbols that are most appropriate for representing each.
  • Use metadata and the World Wide Web to assess the content and availability of attribute data produced by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Readings Chapter 3 in The Nature of Geographic Information
Assignments Chapter 3 Graded Quiz
Chapter 4: TIGER, Topology and Geocoding
Date Week 5
  • Describe how address-referenced census data are matched to specific geographic locations.
  • Define topology and describe why it is encoded in TIGER.
  • Describe TIGER/Line Files in terms of data model, features and attributes, and appropriate uses.
  • Describe how TIGER/Line Files and similar products can be used for other applications, including routing and allocation.
Readings Chapter 4 in The Nature of Geographic Information
Assignments Chapter 4 Graded Quiz
Chapter 5: Land Surveys and GPS
Date Week 6
  • Identify and define the key aspects of data quality, including resolution, precision, and accuracy.
  • List and explain the procedures land surveyors use to produce positional data, including traversing, triangulation, and trilateration.
  • Explain how radio signals broadcast by Global Positioning System satellites are used to calculate positions on the surface of the Earth.
  • Identify and describe the factors that limit the quality of GPS positions.
  • Explain how the quality of GPS positioning is improved.
Readings Chapter 5 in The Nature of Geographic Information
  • Chapter 5 Graded Quiz
  • Project 2: Creating and Interpreting Maps
  • Midterm Course Survey
Chapter 6: National Spatial Data Infrastructure, Part I
Date Week 7
  • Compare the U.S. geographic information strategy to those of other developed nations.
  • Identify and characterize the elements of the U.S. National Map.
  • Assess the status of the U.S. National Map in terms of the completeness of its elements.
  • Outline and explain the process by which an orthophoto is created.
Readings Chapter 6 in The Nature of Geographic Information
Assignments Chapter 6 Graded Quiz
Chapter 7: National Spatial Data Infrastructure, Part II
Date Week 8
  • Given a regular or irregular array of spot elevations, use systematic methods to draw contour lines.
  • Given an irregular array of terrain elevations, interpolate elevation values for a regular array.
  • Use metadata and the World Wide Web to assess the content and availability of the data products that make up the U.S. National Map.
Readings Chapter 7 in The Nature of Geographic Information
  • Chapter 7 Graded Quiz
  • Project 3: Acquiring Geographic Data
Chapter 8: Remotely Sensed Image Data
Date Week 9
  • Compare and contrast characteristics and applications of different types of remotely sensed data, including AVHRR; Landsat MSS, TM, OLI and TIRS; and ERS Radar.
  • Use the World Wide Web to assess the availability, timeliness, and cost of satellite data.
  • Recognize the distinction between supervised and unsupervised means of automated image classification.
Readings Chapter 8 in The Nature of Geographic Information
Assignments Chapter 8 Graded Quiz
Chapter 9: Integrating Geographic Data
Date Week 10
  • List and explain the factors involved in integrating geographic data from a variety of sources.
  • Recognize and name basic GIS operations.
  • Compare and contrast site suitability analyses based on different geographic data models.
Readings Chapter 9 in The Nature of Geographic Information
  • Chapter 9 Graded Quiz
  • Final Exam
  • Penn State's SRTE survey

Course Policies

Withdrawals and Refunds

Students who officially withdraw from the class may be entitled to a pro-rated refund of tuition. For more information, see Refund Policy under World Campus Student Policies.

Use of Trade Names

Where trade names are used no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the World Campus, Outreach and Cooperative Extension, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, or The Pennsylvania State University is implied.

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 will 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 the Penn State World Campus 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 Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Academic Integrity Guidelines for undergraduate students and Penn State's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Academic Integrity Guidelines for graduate students. 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

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.

Inclement Weather

In case of weather-related delays 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 weather delays. If you are affected by a weather-related emergency, please contact your instructor at the earliest possible time to make special arrangements.

Reporting Bias-Motivated Incidents

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 wellbeing.  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.