5 May, 2020

Bringing geospatial training to the forefront of Australian education

Dr Karen Joyce is at the forefront of placing geospatial tools in the hands of students to help them ask questions and make decisions about the Earth, both in her work as a senior lecturer in remote sensing at James Cook University and as the co-founder of She Maps, a STEM program for primary and secondary students.

We interviewed Dr Joyce as part of the #GEEImpact campaign to understand how Google Earth Engine (GEE) is being used across different levels of education.

How are you using GEE in tertiary education?

I teach a remote sensing intensive course for undergraduate and postgraduate students that consists of nine weeks of online theoretical learning followed by a face to face intensive week. 

During the intensive week, I set the students an image processing challenge in an environment and location of their choice. In 2019, I decided to extend the challenge for my postgraduate students by requiring them to use Google Earth Engine for their projects.

Using categorical and quantitative remote sensing techniques, and Landsat multi-temporal imagery, the students tackled many and varied application topics including: 
  • Coral bleaching and habitat change
  • Fire scars
  • Environmental Impact Assessment
  • Beach erosion
  • Mangroves
  • Deforestation
  • Agriculture

What does Google Earth Engine enable your students to do that wasn’t possible with other technologies?

Previously, my students conducted basic post-classification change detection and image differencing based on images from two discrete dates downloaded from USGS archives. This is great for looking at start and end states in an environment, but it doesn’t tell the full story of what happens in between those dates. 

On GEE, students can access Landsat and Sentinel data archives without needing to download individual scenes. Once a student has mastered coding basics, information can be quickly and easily extracted through the decades-long time series on a per-pixel basis so that they can identify trends of change. To run a similar time series analysis by processing and storing the information locally on a desktop is prohibitively slow for the scope of my course.

Using GEE exposes my students to a related challenge that will benefit them as they move into the workforce - computer programming. Whether or not they continue in the geospatial industry, the ability to code is a highly sought after skill.

What sort of background or experience do you think your students need to be able to use GEE?

It’s possible to get students of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences excited about working with Earth observation data. We can use it to run incredibly complex scientific analyses and also strip it right back and perform some very basic tasks. This scalability is useful for teaching as it allows me to set fundamental skills for all levels, but also stretch and challenge the more gifted or inquisitive students.

I am currently experimenting with building these fundamental skills in schools through my work with She Maps. 

What is ‘She Maps’ and why is the program important for career pathways?

The Australian Curriculum places a high value on digital literacy with a view that coding, in particular, is a necessary skill set for the future STEM workforce. 

At She Maps, our mission is to bring diversity into what people see as STEM (it’s more than 3D printing and lab coats), and who works in STEM careers. We see success in ‘light bulb’ moments where kids realise that they can fly a drone, or make a map, or dream of a career they may have previously thought was unavailable to them because of their gender, religion, or ethnicity.

We specifically work with students and teachers, face to face and online, around the world to develop a love of geospatial and drone technology within the future STEM workforce. Find out more about the training and resources available here: https://shemaps.com/

Read the full blog on how Gullara McInness found her passion for geospatial sciences and the prejudices she’s faced as an Indigenous woman: https://shemaps.com/blog/not-stopping-defying-stereotypes-of-aboriginal-people/

So, at what age can we bring Google Earth Engine into schools?

My eight-year-old son has just successfully completed my first Google Earth Engine tutorial aimed at upper primary and lower secondary school students. It is mapped to the Australian Curriculum and designed for students around the world to dip their toes into javascript coding. We’ve rolled out the #MapMySchool with Google Earth Engine challenge globally. Check out the challenge here: http://mapmyschool.com.au/

What skills do you believe students graduating from Universities in spatial science need to have? 

Learning the language is one thing, being able to apply it to solve problems is another. I think it’s important that as much as we need to use coding to process huge datasets, we can’t underestimate the importance of spatial thinking, critical analysis, problem solving skills and collaboration. Often these are considered ‘soft skills’, but they are actually really hard. 

When I am asked to recommend students for a job, I don’t necessarily select the best technical students - though obviously they need to have excellent technical skills. I will always recommend a well-rounded student who excels in the ‘soft skills’ as the best future employee. 

Are you interested in using GEE to teach in Universities or schools? 

She Maps team can help get you started with GEE in your classrooms. Get in touch with the She Maps team to talk about your ideas and get involved.

If you have a story to share with us about using GEE for teaching, use the hashtag #GEEImpact on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, or get in touch with our team! 

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