September 19, 2014, BY Christina Masciere Wallace

Bucknell students visit a water pumping station in New Orleans

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Perched on a crumbling coastline, shaped by four centuries of dramatic reversals of fortune, New Orleans might be the most complex city in the United States. Can its culture and challenges be captured in a three-week course?

Three faculty members decided to try. They teamed to create the first domestic "Bucknell In" course — an interdisciplinary summer class in which students examined New Orleans through the lenses of jazz, history and civil engineering.

"The class arose out of Bucknell's Katrina recovery trips," said Brian Gockley, associate director of the Teaching & Learning Center. "Seeing how the students responded to those experiences made it a natural choice."

Working with Professor Barry Long, music, and Professor Kevin Gilmore, civil & environmental engineering, Gockley developed "New Orleans In 12 Movements," taught over three weeks in May and June. The first week consisted of lectures on campus, followed by a jam-packed week of activities in the city. The students regrouped on campus in the third week to complete the final projects of their choice. They were graded on blog entries, tweets and a final project of their choice.

To integrate such vast amounts of material into a compressed timeframe, the trio turned to Janine Glathar, Bucknell's geographic information systems (GIS) specialist. "GIS is a tool that helps you synthesize vast quantities of information and put it into context, which is exactly what this course did with the city of New Orleans. It was a perfect fit," she said.

Glathar integrated 55 different data layers into one web-based, interactive map accessible on iPads that the students used during lectures and in New Orleans. The simple interface allowed professors and students to interactively explore the features and data on the map, add their own map notes, perform spatial analysis and mix and match information — from historical census data on slave populations in Louisiana, trade and ports to land elevation, jazz halls, flooding and hurricane paths.

"As a musician, I wasn't sure how much I could incorporate GIS into my teaching, but it proved to be extremely useful," said Long. "I was able to clearly show the movement of musical traditions being brought from West Africa to the Americas during the slave trade and then spreading throughout the U.S., from New Orleans to Memphis to Chicago and beyond. It was a tremendous resource."

Private funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation helped support faculty work on GIS for the course. The teaching team also received an Integrated Perspectives (IP) grant for development of the class, which will be offered regularly as an IP selection. A core curriculum requirement, IP classes are team-taught, interdisciplinary courses that help students learn to connect different intellectual methods and ways of learning.

GIS is a natural tool for IP courses, Gilmore noted. "First, it helped the students organize their thoughts and notes in a spatial way. It also allowed them to uncover events and cause and effect through the different lenses through which we taught, and that's one of the main goals of the IP requirement," he said. "It's a very effective way to show interdisciplinary connections."

Josh Berliner '15, a trombone player who majors in environmental studies and economics, agrees. "I thought the class was a great opportunity to combine my previous GIS training with my interests in the environment and jazz. It helped me discern the connections and gain a deeper and different understanding of the city."

Xiaoying Pu '17, who majors in computer science & engineering, had no previous GIS experience but quickly picked up the skills and relied on them in New Orleans. "We could add locations of buildings and flooding," she said. "We could find information to help us understand environmental injustice in Hurricane Katrina rebuilding. And we could display our tweets with photos on the map, which was so cool."

The group's itinerary included stops at jazz clubs, museums, water treatment plants and pumping stations. Pu and Berliner agreed that the most memorable experience was a service trip to the marshes of Terrebonne Parish along the Gulf of Mexico. Wading through waist-deep water and mud, the group planted thousands of grasses to protect the coastline against erosion.

"Within a year or two, that grass will grow and help mitigate the effects of hurricane damage," Berliner said. "It was cool to get our hands dirty and see our work — it's something so relevant to my studies at Bucknell."

The topics of students' final GIS-based projects ranged from the history of New Orleans cuisine to the culture of voodoo. Berliner focused on water treatment in New Orleans, which loses 60 million gallons of water daily due to the age of its infrastructure and damage from Katrina flooding. Pu chose to analyze the oil and gas industry near New Orleans from the perspectives of natural science, geology, economics and environmental impact. The faculty members were pleased with the outcomes of the first class.

"I was most happy with the sophistication of the students' reflections at the end of the course as compared to their impressions of New Orleans at the beginning of the course," said Gilmore. "They really gained an understanding of the depth and complexity of all the inter-related issues. They came out of the course prepared to transfer that understanding to other urban areas. They may not have the answers to all of the questions, but now they understand why — and why these discussions need to continue."

View maps, blogs, student projects and other resources from Bucknell in New Orleans