Celebrity Mapping Project with Matt Wilson from UK College of Arts & Sciences on Vimeo.
by Sarah Geegan
Justin Beiber was at Barker Hall, Paula Dean was on Stoll Field, Bill Murray was in Sorority Row, and Rosie the Riveter was at the Mining and Minerals Building.
That's what the collaborative map created by UKC 101 students indicates anyway.
In an ongoing effort to stimulate creativity and interest in undergraduate education, the UK Department of Geography is striving to provide new, inventive approaches to courses. In this case, professor Matt Wilson's introductory geography class, soon to be designated GEO 109, teaches students basic geographic principles using creative methods and projects.
"The course is called digital mapping," Wilson said. "It was basically an attempt to figure out: can you teach freshmen, who have perhaps not declared a major in geography, principles in how maps are made, how they are read, how you interpret them. Can you teach them those techniques as an introductory class?"
In collaboration with geography professors Matt Zook, Jeremy Crampton and department chair Sue Roberts, Wilson created the class from scratch, modeling some of his projects from a class he taught at the University of Washington in 2008.
"Sue Roberts has been really instrumental in trying to help us better reach undergraduates with better, more relevant curriculum," Wilson said.
The course focuses on exposing students, primarily freshmen, to a variety of ways to think about maps. From drawing mental maps, using Google maps, considering maps as art or science, to understanding the applications of mapping technology, the class covers a broad range of general mapping principles. Students also gain hands-on experience using mapping tools.
"Free Web-based mapping tools are somewhat novel — that technology has only existed for a couple of years," Wilson said. "It allows you to actually take data that exists online and figure out ways to make maps with that data using free tools."
The students used these methods through Wilson's 'Celebrity Mapping Project,' which required them to photograph a cut-out of any celebrity, develop a creative caption explaining why that celebrity would be on campus, upload their photographs into a collaborative photo-sharing site, and, finally, place their photographs directly into the appropriate sites on a collaborative map.
The 'campus celebrities' varied from Jay Z, to Woody Harrelson and Denzel Washington to the Turtle-Man, visiting places from Rupp Arena to south campus dorms and McDonald's to Whitehall Classroom Building.
"This was the first in a series of projects to help students become familiar with some of the cool and very user-friendly mapping applications that are available on the internet," said Ryan Cooper, graduate teaching assistant in the course. "It was great to see their growing confidence even over an hour as students realized they had gotten a peak at some of the possibilities for geographic visualization available to them."
Wilson designed the assignment as a generative constraint project — with the idea that that if you give students a kind of constraint or restriction, it will become generative and cause them to think in new and creative ways.
"So in the celebrity mapping project, the constraint was that they had to use a celebrity," said Wilson. "They then had to think of new ways to represent that constraint in their mapping process."
UKC 101 student Kelsey Holscher, said the project forced the class to make the maps more personal.
"I think that this is an important concept in map-making because regardless of who they make a map for, map-makers instill some sort of themselves into a map," Holscher said. "On top of this, it just made the class more enjoyable. There's a big difference between sitting in a lecture hall for 50 minutes and creating something that you can learn from on your own."
Wilson's creative methods parallel other efforts within the Department of Geography to optimize the undergraduate program.
"We recently had a visit to a departmental meeting by Dean Kornbluh who urged us to think of innovative ways to reach out to undergraduate students so that they are getting a worthwhile and stimulating academic experience at the University of Kentucky," said Cooper. "This call has been undertaken enthusiastically."
Cooper said that Lynn Philips' GEO 160 course, in which he assisted in fall 2011, incorporated a project in which students had to redraw the border between Sudan and South Sudan. In doing so, students had to understand the geopolitical history of the area, and how their changes would affect the situation if they were implemented. He said that it pushed students to think critically about the complexity of borders around the world.
"I feel like students are often times worried about doing projects and assignments 'the right way,'" Cooper said. "I thought it was really great how these students decided to mold the assignments so that it could better serve to express their creativity."
Sonya Prasertong, a graduate student in the Department of Geography, also assisted Wilson in instructing the students.
The instructors are confident that the project fulfilled the course learning objectives and stimulated a broad interest in geography.
"The idea is that we are giving students access to learning how to work with social media in mapping," said Wilson. "There is a lot of power when you aggregate and multiply the different channels for collecting that sort of data. So, it was meant to be fun, and it was meant to present a challenge that sort of sneaks in a lesson to give them basic principles. I think most students enjoyed it."