Online students participate in research project to map refugee migration data

This past summer, 10 Penn State geography graduate students collaborated with graduate students in the Netherlands to develop solutions to analyze spatiotemporal patterns in refugee migration data.

“The current refugee crisis is unprecedented and has implications for mass migration, humanitarian aid, and resettlement, and it affects nations worldwide," said instructor Beth King. "Our students developed visualization solutions using the United Nations High Commission for Refugees database to provide assistance to refugees.” Their solutions entailed developing software, identifying potential funding sources and making recommendations on how best to allocate resources to benefit refugees.

The unique field-learning experience was part of a new, eight-week course in the online Master of Geographic Information Systems program offered by the Department of Geography. Taught by King and Fritz Kessler, Challenges in Global Geospatial Analytics gave the Penn State students an opportunity to work with students at the Geo-information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) of the University of Twente, located in Enschede, Netherlands.

The first four weeks of the course featured collaborative learning at a distance to develop their proposals. Penn State students engaged in problem-solving activities using a range of digital learning tools and developed online partnerships with ITC students, Kessler said.

MGIS students in the Netherlands

Penn State Master of Geographic Information Systems students collaborated with students from the Geo-information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) of the University of Twente, located in Enschede, Netherlands, and used geospatial analytics to arrive at a solution to visualize refugee migration patterns over space and time.

Image: Penn State

The Penn State students and instructors then traveled to Europe for the field component of the course. During the first week, they collaborated with ITC students on an intense project development experience. During the second week, they visited European mapping agencies and universities in the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland to talk about their results with geospatial professionals.

After the two weeks of travel, they returned to the United States to apply what they learned in Europe to revise and refine their projects. The course wrapped up with the students presenting their final project proposals.

“Our students had the opportunity to present their work and develop new connections with EU geospatial professionals via the site visits,” King said. “They also worked in teams to tackle this global-scale data set, and use geospatial analytics to arrive at a solution to visualize refugee migration patterns over space and time.”

This class has been in development for several years.

“The core idea emerged after Cindy Brewer and I took undergraduates around the world during the college's Center for Advancement of Undergraduate Studies and Experience (CAUSE) 2012 course,” said Anthony Robinson, director of online geospatial education programs and assistant professor in the Department of Geography. “We talked on that trip about how something could be created to serve the needs of our professional MGIS students. I’ve been working on the proposal and logistical details since then, in coordination with Professor Menno-Jan Kraak at ITC.”

"We wanted our students to work on an applied research project with students at another university, and ITC students come to the Netherlands from all over the world, so that aspect was appealing to us as well."

--Anthony Robinson, director of online geospatial education programs and assistant professor in the Department of Geography at Penn State

Robinson said, “Penn State and ITC have had a lot of collaboration on research over the years, so making a connection with ITC was a natural for this. We wanted our students to work on an applied research project with students at another university, and ITC students come to the Netherlands from all over the world, so that aspect was appealing to us as well. Professor Kraak at ITC is also the current president of the International Cartographic Association — an organization that I’m quite active in, along with others in the department like Cindy Brewer, current department head, and Alan MacEachren. We saw this as a unique opportunity to create a new model on how to couple research with online learning at the graduate level, and to do it in a way that reflects the unique abilities of our professional World Campus students.”

MGIS students in the Netherlands

Group photo of students in Penn State’s online Master of Geographic Information Systems (MGIS) with students from the Geo-information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) of the University of Twente, located in Enschede, Netherlands.

Image: Penn State

The course had support from various units and is Penn State’s first online graduate program to incorporate a study abroad component.

“We’ve had a lot of support from the Department of Geography, the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, World Campus and the Office of Global Programs,” Robinson said. “We are actually the first online graduate program at Penn State to offer a study abroad experience like this, and the first among our peer institutions who offer online geospatial education programs. It’s not easy to set everything in motion, but it’s never easy when you’re blazing the trail. We’re really excited to see what our students have produced in this class, and to refine the model we’re testing here to deliver an impactful study abroad experience tailored to our online graduate students.”

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Last Updated September 27, 2016