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Our GIS Program

Our History

    Over the past 12 years, the Environmental Science (ES) GIS program has continued to grow and evolve.  The following is a brief history illustrating where we’ve been and insight into we’re going.

In the summer of 2000, the ES department established a GIS lab consisting of three Windows NT machines and ArcView GIS 3.2a software.  During this time, a full-time GIS Lab Manager was hired to administer the lab and assist students and faculty with teaching and research.  The following spring the first of a series of GIS workshops (Introduction to ArcView and Advanced ArcView) were held. These workshops, which were offered during evening hours, consisted of 16 students and 2 faculty members huddled around three desktop computers.

Due to limitations in equipment, a projector borrowed from the Biology department, was connected to one of the machines and broadcast onto a whiteboard. In these workshops, participants learned how to collect, analyze, and present GIS information and at the conclusion, each was awarded with a “GIS Certificate” as these were non-credit bearing training sessions. A handful of academic courses such as Environmental Research Methods and Conservation Biology made application of GIS and eight seniors integrated GIS into their thesis project. In the summer of 2001, the ES department made significant upgrades to the GIS lab using grants received from the USDA and Pennsylvania’s Link-to-Learn program. This included the addition of seven computer workstations, ArcGIS 8.0 software (2 ArcInfo seats and 6 ArcView seats), a Summagrid V digitizing tablet, wide-format plotter, and ceiling-mounted projector, two Trimble GeoExplorer 3 GPS receivers and GPS Pathfinder Office software. The department also received a Maytum donation from which new furniture (desks, chairs, carpet, etc.) was purchased. Also added was a license of ERDAS Imagine, seven licenses of the ArcView Image Analysis extension, and one Trimble GeoXT GPS receiver.

The expansion of the GIS lab helped to facilitate an increase in teaching and research within the ES curriculum over the next five years.  New GIS workshops were constantly being developed (Introduction to GIS, Intermediate GIS, Advanced GIS, and Fundamentals of GIS I and II) and taught to students strictly on a voluntary basis (no-credit).  From 2001-2005 approximately 137 students completed the introductory GIS workshop, while 79 continued on and completed the advanced GIS level of the workshops.  At this time, many local community partners from places like the Meadville Engineering Department, Crawford County Planning Commission, and USDA NRCS enrolled in and took advantage of the free workshops.  The number of students using GIS in senior thesis and internship projects continued to rise, as did the number of faculty using GIS for research.  Examples of mapping and research projects conducted include mapping the locations of historic sites, monuments, and plaques in Meadville, promoting ecotourism in NW Pennsylvania, and mapping invasive species of vegetation at the Erie National Wildlife Refuge.  In 2004, Allegheny College in conjunction with the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) hosted a Teaching and Learning with GIS in the Liberal Arts workshop for faculty and staff.  Then, on November 7, 2004, Allegheny held a GIS at Allegheny event to celebrate national GIS Day.  Seven guest presenters gave talks ranging from “Calculating Wetland Gains and Losses within the French Creek Watershed” to “Using GIS to Understand Groundwater Recharge”.  There were also videos, software demonstrations and a map gallery showcasing GIS projects conducted by students and faculty.


In 2006, the department shifted from teaching GIS in non-credit bearing workshops to 2-credit courses within the ES curriculum.  For the next three years, the GIS Lab Manager assumed the role of instructor for the ES 196/197 Principles of GIS Analysis I and II courses.  Rather than working through “canned” software tutorials, students learned both theoretical concepts and technical skills by conducting original research projects.  Examples include assessing the risk to lead poisoning in children, site suitability and visibility analysis for wind turbines, and bathymetry mapping of local natural lakes.  In addition to the evolution of the way GIS was being taught, the GIS lab also experienced a transformation. Thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation, more desktop machines, equipment (Trimble GeoXT receiver), and software applications (ERDAS Imagine and CITYgreen for ArcGIS) were added to allow for larger classes to make use of the tools and resources available.  The most substantial change, related to the way GIS data was stored and retrieved.  A dedicated GIS server was purchased to serve as the primary GIS data repository and software license manager.  It also enabled us with the ability to build and deploy web mapping services and applications for non-GIS users.  However, the greatest benefit came in the form of helping to preserve data integrity and increase efficiency of data access.  Then, in 2009 a campus-wide ESRI site license was purchased in order to expand the use of GIS throughout the college.  ArcGIS Desktop was installed on four machines in the Geology GIS lab in Alden Hall to create a “satellite” lab for GIS work.


Due to the overwhelming success of the 2-credit courses, the ES department concluded that students would be better served by 4-credit lab courses.  During the 2009/10 academic year, the GIS Lab Manager along with Dr. Terry Bensel team-taught what is now considered the core GIS-based methods courses---ENVSC 215: Introduction to Environmental Science and ENVSC 315: Advanced Environmental Mapping.  Following a similar model developed in ES 196/197, students in these courses are taught how to use geospatial technologies (GIS, GPS, remote sensing) to solve real-world problems in a variety of fields.  Students learn how to develop and execute full-fledged GIS projects through background investigation, data capture, collection, and management, spatial data analysis, and interpretation and presentation of results.  In addition, each student in the advanced course is required to complete a semester-long, independent research project that employs GIS and mapping approaches.  During the 2011/12 academic year, a record number of students (150+) were introduced to or utilize GIS in some way.  For example, 12 students integrated GIS into their senior thesis project, and GIS was used in at least 7 academic courses.  Faculty continue to rely on students to assist them in research as 7 students have been hired to work on projects over the summer (Biomonitoring in the French Creek Watershed and Bedrock and Surficial Mapping of NW Pennsylvania).  As a testament to Allegheny students’ GIS knowledge, skills, and abilities, two students won awards this year for their map/poster.  Brian Anderson ’13 took home first place in the Intermediate/Advanced Map Contest at the 2011 NWPA GIS Conference and Courtney Papinchak ’12 was awarded the People’s Choice Map Award at the 2012 Pennsylvania GIS Conference.
In addition to the advancement of GIS in academics, the GIS lab also encountered many changes. In the summer of 2009, Allegheny’s Classroom Advisory Committee awarded $15,000 towards the purchase of fifteen new computers and Hewlett Packard donated fifteen 22-inch monitors and a new wide-format plotter. As part of a reorganization of department offices, the GIS lab was moved from Steffee Hall to Carr Hall the following summer. Once it was learned that Carr Hall would be renovated for the new Richard Cook Center for Environmental Science, the department was moved once again. This time, the GIS lab was relocated to Murray Hall and ES faculty offices were moved to the Pelletier Library. While in Murray Hall, major improvements were made to GIS data access, control, and security. These included installing GIS on faculty machines and mapping the shared network drive, enabling the GIS Manager to configure, manage, and administer the GIS server remotely, limiting access to GIS datasets based on user login, streamlining GIS dataset backup and recovery procedures, and initiating remote deployment of all our geospatial software products.
Finally, during the summer of 2012, the GIS lab was permanently positioned back in Carr Hall. The new, state-of-the-art GIS facility boasts 25 computer workstations running the latest versions of ArcGIS Desktop, ERDAS Imagine, and Trimble Pathfinder Office, ArcGIS Server for building and deploying web mapping services and applications, 20 GPS receivers for field data collection, a SMART board, and wide-format scanners and plotters, as well as a host of other tools and resources. As we gear up for another academic year, we are well-positioned to continue teaching students how to utilize GIS to solve real-world problems in a diverse range of applications.