SOC 128 Boilerplate

Course Objectives

The course provides students with the opportunity to attain beginner to intermediate level competence with ESRI's ArcGIS Desktop along with experience applying GIS to one or more fields of interest. In addition to hands-on skills, the course also introduces students to cartography, spatial data analysis, data visualization, and the use of images to communicate. Along the way, students will have the opportunity to learn some real geography, a bit of math and physics, a little bit of computer science, and to develop deeper expertise in specific areas if so motivated.

See Also: Formal Learning Goals


QGIS Gentle Introduction
QGIS User Manual

How to Learn Computer Applications

There are three variables that will determine how well you learn to fly the software introduced in this course. Most important is simply the number of hours you log in the pilot's seat (I would estimate a minimum of 6-8 solid, separate hours per week for at least the first several weeks). You get out what you put in. Second most important is the frequency with which you do so — more than once per day is ideal; once per week is a recipe for falling behind and/or failing. Third most important is repetition. It is generally better to move forward at a reasonable clip and repeat exercises until they are second nature than to proceed with slow, deliberate care taking notes on each step. You are developing intuition here, not studying for an exam.

Classroom Standards and Decorum

We will start on time. Please do your best to arrive early enough to be settled and ready to start at the appointed time. This is especially true in lab. You will be expected to be at a work station, logged in, ready to go by 4:05.

Laptops MAY be used during class for note-taking, though I don't recommend it. If you have a laptop open, you will be expected to refrain from checking email, Facebook, and the like and surfing the web. These activities reduce your capacity to focus on what's going on in class, they are distracting to the people around you (as is your divided presence), and it's an unprofessional habit you really do not want to cultivate.

It should not need saying but texting, tweeting, Facebooking, whatever, on phone or tablet or laptop during class is simply unacceptable. I reserve the right to ask you to leave class if I notice you doing it and to drop the course if you are an habitual offender.

There are no stupid questions. But the rest of us will get annoyed if you keep asking me to repeat myself because you are not paying attention or decided to skip ahead and not hear what the rest of us are talking about. Just sayin'.

Throughout most of this course the syllabus has you looking things over, trying them out, watching a video lecture, or otherwise preparing ahead of time. THAT is a large part of the work of the course. Both I and your classmates depend on you to have done it. Your getting the most out of class and lab sessions depends on you having done it.

A Note on Working With Computers

You will often follow the instructions in an exercise and not get the results the instructions indicate. Most people's first inclination is to think either (1) something is wrong with the computer or software, or (2) the instructions are wrong. Both are possible, but both are much less common events than misreading the instructions. Computers are, at the end of the day, damnably consistent. One of the joys (if you see it in the right light) of working with them is that if you remember that fact you can learn a lot about how to master them and make productive use of them.

It does, however, require of many folks a certain attitude adjustment: you will repeatedly make little mistakes and the damn machine will catch you EVERY time. If you can come to think of this as a virtue, you will enjoy this course and learn a lot. If you allow it to frustrate, anger, intimidate, or shame you or undermine your confidence, you will neither enjoy the experience nor learn much. Nor will you be much fun to be around.

Mastering the Art of Thinking Slowly

Finally, there seems to be a tendency when around computers to feel compelled to show how fast one can think. This is also manifest, sometimes, in a compulsion to read very quickly, skipping words, or whole steps. Success requires the exact opposite of these. The computer will think (and act) quickly, repeating tasks over and over again without complaining. Our job is to go slowly and systematically so we can be sure that the instructions we ask the computer to carry out millions of times at lightning speed make sense and get done the job we want to do. Slow, step by step, cognitive plodding is the thing you want to cultivate in this class (and it's not a bad tool to have in other areas in life either).


Since this is largely a skill-based course, the assessment is mostly based on demonstrating that you have learned the skills. Evaluation divided among 6 areas (they total to 105% — a bonus is added for staying on schedule with exercises).

Attend class and labs is sine qua non — no credit but no passing without it. For neutral credit, miss no more than one class, never miss a lab. Each additional class missed may cost 0.085 points, a lab costs 0.17 (out of 4.0 = A. One step (from A to A-, for example) is 0.33. This means that if you miss two labs your grade drops by a notch. Likewise 4 classes.

Component Proportion of Grade
On Time Performance 20%
Quizzes, etc. 20%
Exams ~20%
Skill Practical(s) ~20%
Project Contribution ~20%

On-Time Performance. There will be a time table for the completion of various exercises, tutorials, quizzes, labs, etc. Simply doing these by deadline will be worth points.

Quizzes There will be quizzes to measure your progress along the way. Sometimes you will be able to re-take them to improve on previous performances.

Exams There will be "paper" exams and "practical" exams. You will sit for two "Lab Practicals". These will be short "oral" or "manual" exams. Class members will be provided with a list of skills to master. Each will have a short (<10 minute) appointment with instructor during which, by roll of dice you will be asked to demonstrate 3-5 GIS skills. Each is graded as "3-aced," "2-OK," or "0-didn't really know how to do it" plus 1 for showing up for 10 total possible points.

Project Contribution By the end of the semester you will be responsible for producing something that is a contribution to the open source mapping community. This might be a data set, an instructional video, a research project, a body of edits, a piece of software, etc.

Other Policies

Customary academic standards academic integrity (including proper bibliographic citation) apply. It is your responsibility to know what these are and to follow them. Collaborative learning is encouraged, but work that is submitted under your name as a demonstration of your skills and competence must represent YOUR work. Plagiarism, as defined under the Mills College Honor Code, will be cause for, at a minimum, a failing grade in this course. Please consult with instructor if you have any questions, or even the slightest doubt, about how to follow these requirements.


Every effort will be made to make this class accessible for students regardless of disability. Students with needs for accomodation should contact for Students with Disabilities (Cowell Building, x2130) and inform the instructor in order for access to be arranged adequately and promptly.