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Fighting the research fear factor

January 5, 2004

Image: Map of San Francisco, CA showing Asian population density as a percentage of total block population as derived from 2000 census by blockCollege professors say they see it happen time and time again: Promising students in such social sciences as urban studies, political science and sociology who suddenly lose interest when faced with taking those feared courses on research methods and data analysis.

Researchers at SFSU have found a way to help motivate students to master these topics by teaching them how to use information in the form of computerized maps and visual data graphics.

Now with the support of a $432,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Professor Richard LeGates and Assistant Professor Ayse Pamuk, both in urban studies, are working to take their approach worldwide. They are developing instructional modules to introduce the use of geographic information systems (GIS) software and data graphics to social science undergraduates worldwide.

"GIS is a way for students to take a new look at issues and solve problems," said LeGates. "Students are excited learning about GIS because they see it as a way to visually represent information. And they have grown up using computers and getting much of their information visually." Computer-generated maps to make comparisons and projections are widely used in geography today, but they are also becoming a valuable tool in such fields as urban planning, sociology and political science.

The SFSU project is intended to spur student interest in social science research methods and data analysis courses as well as help faculty become more comfortable mixing high-tech teaching methods with conventional ones.

"Students have a strong interest in behavioral and social science, and public policy issues such as where immigrants settle, how to save the environment, improving traffic congestion and promoting affordable housing. But they may not major in rigorous social sciences because of the required research methods and data analysis classes," said LeGates. Urban studies majors, for example, have to take a four-credit course on research methods and another four-unit course on data analysis that includes statistical analysis for research interpretation.

As co-principal investigators on the grant, Pamuk and LeGates are involving students to develop two modules that will be used for teaching research methods and data analysis.

The faculty members will produce two textbooks, CD-ROMs and a Web site. LeGates, who calls his module "Thinking Globally/Acting Regionally," is developing instruction for research methods courses. Pamuk, who titles her module "GIS Methods in Urban Analysis," is focusing on data analysis courses.

The instructional lessons all have an urban focus and will use data about population and changing demographics, immigration, housing, transportation, and the environment. Students will work with real-world data from sources such as the United Nations Habitat Program and the 2000 U.S. Census on Housing and Population.

LeGates has compiled Bay Area data that looks at a variety of environmental issues such as toxic release sites, habitats and the loss of prime farmland. In classroom exercises, the students will analyze data and develop policy recommendations using GIS software.

"We want to get students comfortable using this technology, which has become an essential tool in urban planning and public policy analysis," said LeGates, a faculty member for 30 years and an expert on regional planning.

Pamuk, an authority on housing and urban policy analysis who joined the faculty in 2000, uses GIS techniques extensively in her research on population patterns and housing trends. She said the new modules will give students a thorough introduction to the valuable use of digital geographic information. "At present, these courses do not incorporate spatial analysis methods in them and we have convinced the National Science Foundation that GIS can serve as a powerful tool," said Pamuk.

During the summer, Pamuk and LeGates will train faculty from other universities on how to use the instructional modules. Next fall, LeGates and Pamuk will test versions of the modules in their own classes at SFSU and the trained faculty will do the same at San Jose State, University of Cincinnati, Howard University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Cleveland State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York (CUNY) and University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The SFSU researchers intend to have the book-length instructional modules and data sets ready for nationwide distribution in 2006.

-- Ted DeAdwyler

Image: GIS-generated data from an article by Ayse Pamuk of Urban Studies accepted for publication by the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Here is a larger version of the above image.


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Last modified January 5, 2004, by the Office of Public Affairs