Tri-Co Professor’s Software Course Opens Doors for Interdisciplinary Opportunities

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

After a career spent zigzagging across disciplines, Visiting Professor Megan Heckert is on the second of two years in the Quaker–Tri-Co–Consortium, where teaches a class on Geographic Information Systems (GIS), software that organizes location-based information.

According to Heckert, GIS introduces a world of interdisciplinary-based thinking in the classroom, with the opportunity to consider and approach questions through a geographic lens.

“It’s software,” she said, “but it’s more of a way of thinking about the world in a spatial way and then running those questions through a computer.”

“I don’t like to pin myself to a particular discipline,” Heckert continued. “Disciplines are limiting in the sense that they give you one framework for how to look at and evaluate what’s going on. They only give you one part of the story. Interdisciplinary perspectives are essential at getting at that bigger picture.”

GIS is relevant in fields ranging from Geography to Engineering to activism, which is Heckert’s own focus. The Tri-Co institutions, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford, each took varying approaches to housing Heckert and GIS. At Bryn Mawr, Heckert is in the Growth and Structure of Cities department. At Haverford she is independent of any department. And at Swarthmore she is in the Political Science department and Environmental Studies program.

Professor Carol Nackenoff, head of the Political Science department and Environmental Studies faculty member, said that since Environmental Studies is not a department with its own offices, Heckert needed a department in addition to Environmental Studies. While Sociology/Anthropology initially seemed like the best choice, due to concerns over hiring tenure-track positions, the department declined to house Heckert and GIS.

“[Political Science] had an office, we had the space. And more importantly, Political Science values GIS as a tool,” Nackenoff said.

The concern over where to place Heckert reflects a common concern for interdisciplinary programs, the majority of which don’t have the same rights and privileges as traditional departments to hire tenure-track professors.

For Heckert, the fluidity of Swarthmore’s Environmental Studies program is actually not a setback, but an advantage.

“It’s an attempt to expose students to multiple interdisciplinary perspectives on environmental issues and allow students to put those together in their own way,” she said.

Heckert uses this interdisciplinary perspective when teaching GIS here at Swarthmore. Heckert’s advanced GIS seminar brought together 14 students – four from Swarthmore, four from Bryn Mawr, and six from Haverford. The majors ranged from Political Science to Chemistry. While these students learned theory, through Community Based Learning, students applied these theories to aid a cause in the Philadelphia metropolitan area.

Through the interdisciplinary nature of GIS, Heckert has blurred lines between the Tri-Co campuses, disciplines, departments, and the barrier between academia and the “real world.”

GIS is two-fold in that its students can apply unique knowledge to GIS – whether they come from a Political Science or Engineering background, their experiences can shape their approach in GIS in different yet equally valid ways. In turn, GIS offers students a new way of thinking that can enhance the ways they learn in their respective disciplines.

“In a liberal arts setting like this, students are looking to both gain a pretty wide breadth of knowledge and also go deep into their majors and minors. GIS offers a way of bringing different ways of thinking together while also going deeper into each mode of thought,” Heckert said.

Image courtesy of ETAP.

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