Teaching Strides

MRU Faculty Daring Greatly

Season 4, Episode 6: Thinking spatially: How geography interacts with our everyday lives


How much do we rely on Google Maps to get around? How do we track the way viruses spread? Can Twitter be used to address local issues? These are all questions Dr. Lynn Moorman, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and in the Department of General Education, says can be answered by thinking spatially — a concept you don’t need a background in science to get behind!


Meg Wilcox: (00:00)

I’m Meg Wilcox and this is teaching strides MRU faculty daring greatly. For anyone outside the field, spatial science and physical geography might sound like unapproachable concepts. But with 20 years of industry experience, Dr. Lynn Mormon, a geography professor is bringing these ideas to students and faculty in all disciplines at MRU. Geography, though we sometimes think it is, isn’t just about maps. Students explore the human side of systems like Google maps and participate in community service labs as part of their class credit. And that’s part of what we’ll be talking about today. Thanks for joining me.

Lynn Moorman: (00:39)

Yes, of course. Happy to be here.

Meg Wilcox: (00:41)

So you have a mix of students from different disciplines who take your introductory geography courses. So how do you make these concepts accessible to students who may not necessarily have a background in science?

Lynn Moorman: (00:52)

Yeah, great question. That’s part of the beauty of the course as well. So the very first thing I will do in an introductory course to physical geography is make sure all the students know where everybody’s from. Having different perspectives is really important. We have students from aviation, we have a lot of students from ecotourism. I know they can all bring something to the course as well. So just having that respect and knowledge about who’s in the room is really important. And so, I mean, that’s sort of when you’re starting out, you’re getting to know people, you’re starting to learn some of the basic concepts and find out how your field can apply to geography in different ways.

Meg Wilcox: (01:30)

For students who are specializing a bit more in geography a bit later on in the advanced courses, what are some of the things that they might learn, for example, in your geographical systems course?

Lynn Moorman: (01:38)

First of all, they’re going to learn how to think spatially. And what that means is approaching a problem from a spatial perspective. So for instance, if I have students who are interested in medical fields, let’s look at epidemiology. Let’s look at where something starts from, maybe a virus, maybe Coronavirus: Where is that starting and what are all the factors that will contribute to where it goes? That’s all geography.

Meg Wilcox: (02:04)

Are there any special projects or anything else that you sort of take on to have students practice those concepts?

Lynn Moorman: (02:10)

So that course is a community service-learning course. That means that we partner with a community group, usually a nonprofit, and the students will actually go in, talk to the people involved, recognize some of their issues and problems that need to be solved. And then we’ll start thinking spatially around how can we solve those problems? How can we use spatial technologies to address their issues? The students will each choose a research area of their own and often tied to their own disciplines, right? Whether it’s archeology or meteorology or ecotourism — whatever they’re interested in. And then within the course, we’ll do independent research projects that address the community partners’ needs. And then we’ll report back to the community as well. Two of our main partners have been Cross Conservation area and the Ghost Valley people living in the Ghost Valley. The Ghost Valley community was very concerned about all of the logging happening in their beautiful, pristine foothills environment. And we were working with outfitters to map viewsheds. So on their trails, what are the people actually going to see now? Do they still see forest or are they actually seeing the logged sites? So making the maps of what will be seen from the trails, monitoring erosion and estimating erosion rates and how that will affect fish as well. In the streams at the cross conservation area, tackling the issue of how do you align a new trail or where do you put a new trial based on user needs such as slope, making sure it’s not too steep. There’s very specific criteria around that. What kind of materials are you going over? Not passing by sensitive terrain as well or habitat.

Meg Wilcox: (03:49)

And have there been any scenarios where you’ve seen this information, this research inaction now with those organizations?

Lynn Moorman: (03:55)

Yeah, absolutely. The Ghost Valley actually, they had a birthday party for one of their community members and they were so excited about what the students had done that they pass the hat around, collected enough money to hire that student for the summer as a research assistant. That student was an environmental science student. And she was able to use this project as her work term. So I was a supervisor, but she worked directly with the community and created an app for them to map out areas of disturbance in the Ghost Valley. There’s a lot of off-road vehicles and a lot of camping and a lot of disturbances that is really kind of damaging to the environment and the community is quite concerned. The Province of Alberta said, ‘We can’t really do anything unless you can show us exactly what’s happening and where.’ So now they have an app that they can go out and map where these different disturbances are happening and give evidence to the province. And that’s resulted in the province being quite excited because now they actually have something they can work with.

Meg Wilcox: (04:54)

And so you’ve worked in the field for 20 years. What are some of the jobs that you’ve held, some of the work you’ve done?

Lynn Moorman: (05:01)

I’ve worked with the Canadian space agency, so 1995, Canada launched their first earth observation, satellite radar set. And I’m still using radar data to this day in some of my projects in the Arctic and my students learn about it. I was involved in doing the user criteria, so what people had to know about radar in order to use it effectively. So I look at different user communities and report that back to the space agency. I’ve worked in Vietnam living in Hanoi to build up their mapping program around the barren lands, so lands that have been destroyed from too much farming and sensitive areas. So we mapped all of Northern Vietnam and being the mapping person, I was kind of the core person there and foresters would come in and out and give me information. Soil specialists would come in and give me information. And so I still use that as a great example in my classes today of how we work with so disciplines and we synthesize the information so that it’s actually usable for people.

Meg Wilcox: (06:03)

So you first started on the side of working in geography and using these tools and thinking they were fantastic. And then taking a step back and maybe becoming a bit more critical about when or how these technologies might be used. So I’m curious about how your relationship to these tools has shifted particularly now as you’re teaching them to students.

Lynn Moorman: (06:23)

Yeah, and that was part of becoming a professor, of course, was how do we teach this effectively. My actual relationship is that I rarely use GPS. I appreciate it. We need it for society. It’s great for finding locations of data so that then we can spatially analyze things. But in my day to day navigation, one thing I’ve learned through the research in spatial cognition and psychology and neuroscience is how important spatial thinking and navigation particularly is to the hippocampus in the brain. And we see societies that are much reliant on GPS now where that physical part of their brain is shrinking. And in a specific community like the taxi drivers in London traditionally had to have a very strict exam about how they would get from one place to another at different times of the day, different traffic flow. And they had an amazing mental map. And their physical hippocampus in their brains was much larger. So we know it’s like a muscle that you exercise and spatial thinking has also been recognized as critical in STEM disciplines. So if you’re thinking about looking at a molecule and its geometry, that’s all spatial thinking. The idea of Watson and Crick developing the DNA structure, that’s all spatial thinking. So this is where geography has a role across society in helping us navigate from place to place. I mean, that’s really fundamental literacy. Probably our very first and also being able to move forward in things like sciences for journalism, things like Twitter is really important because we can locate where we’re getting different tweets from and really pinpoint where an area of concern is. Perhaps if you see a lot of public unrest and a lot of comments coming out. So there’s a lot of geospatial analysis around tweets even.

Meg Wilcox: (08:09)

And so one of the things you also do here on campus is you run these spatial sessions, tell me a bit about those.

Lynn Moorman: (08:15)

Yeah. That was an initiative from the academic development center and it was lead your own initiative. I call it a ‘do-it-yourself workshops’ or whatever it is that we want to bring to campus. And I really liked the idea of that. So I’ve seen a real need for professional development and support around geographic information systems, just basic mapping, and programs, everything from general education to supply chain to even nursing all across campus. So I thought, why don’t we take that opportunity that ADC is providing, create something called spatial sessions where we can look at who’s using this across campus, who wants to use it, what supports do they need? And again, that’s going right to the ground level, right, to the users to ask them instead of a top-down approach. So with one announcement we gave, people across campus a chance to come together on International GIS day or International geographic information system stay in November. And we had representatives from 15 different departments. We had faculty, we had staff. We haven’t opened it up to students yet because we really want to make sure the faculty are well supported in this first. And we just learned about how much interest there is. People in departments, we’re seeing other people in their departments there and saying, ‘I didn’t realize that you did this work too and we’re interested in it.’ So it’s built bridges within faculties and departments and built bridges across those as well. So what’s happening now after that initial session is a few people that have been really keen to build it into their programs have come to myself and Brian Jackson in the library for support. We’ve worked with him on lesson plans and how to integrate this into their classes. We’ll work with them over this semester, but we’ll have another general spatial session where we’ll target some of the ideas that the crowd mentioned in November of what they really need.

Meg Wilcox: (10:11)

And so looking across these, as you mentioned, 15 different, you know, disciplines, what kind of outcomes or problems do you think you’ll be able to solve with these spatial sessions or work towards? I suppose we never truly solve the problems, right?

Lynn Moorman: (10:24)

Oh, exactly. And we just, I think what we end up doing is finding more opportunities in these different disciplines for where spatial sciences can really help address issues. But also for the students. I mean, if you have some experience with this, it’s a very resilient skill in the workforce. So I have some students in the past who’ve taken my advanced spatial analysis class. Their departments in their industry had been decimated and the companies are hanging on to them because they have that mapping skill. So what can we do in other disciplines here? Something like the supply chain, they have a new data analysis lab. GIS is absolutely fundamental to the whole idea of tracking assets and seeing where fleets are moving. And so they want more information and training on this too, right? Just more education. So working directly with them to have better outcomes in terms of integrating this into the class where the faculty are very comfortable with it and then it becomes part of the student’s toolkit as well.

Meg Wilcox: (11:27)

And so for you, what would your hope be with these tools here at MRU? How would you like to see them use in the future?

Lynn Moorman: (11:33)

I want to see it centralized. This isn’t just a geographers tool, this is an ‘everybody’s tool.’ It’s ubiquitous in the workforce. It’s ubiquitous in our type of thinking, the spacial thinking we do. So I’d like to see it accessible to everyone and that they’re aware of not only how to use it, but what the potential is so that if they do have a problem, they can say, Oh, what’s in my toolkit? Yes. Geographic analysis or spatial analysis. I know how to do that and hopefully, that will solve their, their issues. So I’m really looking forward to building that geospatial capacity across campus.

Meg Wilcox: (12:09)

Wonderful. Thank you so much for joining me.

Lynn Moorman: (12:11)

Thank you very much.

Meg Wilcox: (12:20)

That was Dr. Lynn Moormon. She’s a geography professor here at Mount Royal University and you can find her on Twitter @geocognito. Teaching Strides is produced by Hadeel Abdel-Nabi and me, Meg Wilcox, in conjunction with the Academic Development Centre at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. We’re proud to broadcast from the traditional territories of the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, the Tsuut’ina, the Îyâxe, Nakoda Nations, the Métis Nation (Region 3). We look forward to sharing the stories and experiences of the many people who live, learn and teach in the treaty seven region. You can find us wherever you podcast and at teachingstrides.ca.