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GEOG 587 - Conservation GIS

This is a sample syllabus.

This sample syllabus is a representative example of the information and materials included in this course. Information about course assignments, materials, and dates listed here is subject to change at any time. Definitive course details and materials will be available in the official course syllabus, in Canvas, when the course begins.


GEOG 587: CONSERVATION GIS. Conservation GIS applies geospatial problem solving to ecological research and resource management issues to enhance conservation planning.

Conservation GIS strives to document Earth's biological diversity, investigate how human activities influence natural systems and work for the conservation of natural and cultural resources by applying appropriate geospatial technologies and methods. Designing, implementing, and evaluating conservation action requires interdisciplinary approaches that blend spatial and temporal information on physical, biological, and socio-economic factors as a basis to establish current conditions, monitor change, and predict possible futures. Practitioners work in support of government natural resource management agencies, non-profit conservation organizations, and environmental consulting companies to address projects from local to global scales. They combine geospatial capability with core concepts from conservation biology, landscape ecology, biodiversity monitoring, environmental impact analysis, watershed assessment, and wildlife management (among others) to address specific conservation challenges.

GEOG 587 provides students the opportunity to expand on the GIS concepts introduced in GEOG 487: "Environmental Applications of GIS" while emphasizing the foundational knowledge that is expected of conservation professionals and is often required to be successful in the scientific and highly interdisciplinary conservation arena. Complimenting the excellent technical software training that students receive in the MGIS program; the course takes a knowledge-building and problem-based approach by guiding students through readings and conceptual frameworks for thinking about conservation problems and asking them to write about their understanding of how and why conservation works and does not work. Rather than teaching a few geospatial tools and techniques that may or may not apply to each student's professional setting; the goal of a problem-based approach is to provide students with the understanding and expertise to select and communicate the justification for selecting specific geospatial tools and datasets in their future work. Unlike in the past, today we are fortunate that there is a geospatial tool or algorithm to do just about any spatial operation -- the challenge is in selecting one and communicating with others how and why it works. In completing a final project students are given the opportunity to select a specific geospatial dataset, software, tool, or method to learn (along with the instructor's support) that is most applicable to their current and/or future career goals. The student's ability to synthesize information and use the written word to describe their reasoning and decision process will in large part dictate their success in this course.


Students who successfully complete this course will be prepared to:

  • define and describe Conservation GIS and the interdisciplinary process of identifying conservation targets
  • discuss the history and evolution of contemporary global strategies for environmental/biodiversity conservation
  • understand and apply the theoretical scientific concepts that inform conservation action today
  • describe and contribute a spatial perspective to natural resource planning and management
    understand and use technical terminology correctly related to conservation, climate change and human dimensions of natural resources
  • design and complete a geospatial conservation project from question/objective development to the communication of results in the form of effective technical writing and the generation of supporting figures and graphics

Required Materials

The materials listed here represent those that may be included in this course. Students will find a definitive list in the course syllabus, in Canvas, when the course begins.

  • Esri software (no cost to current Penn State students)
  • Yellowdig Discussion platform (fee based)


GEOG 487 or equivalent.


We have worked hard to make this the most effective and convenient educational experience possible. How much and how well you learn is dependent on your attitude, diligence, and willingness to ask for clarifications or help when you need them. We are here to help you succeed. Please keep up with the class schedule and take advantage of opportunities to communicate with us and with your fellow students. You can expect to spend an average of 10 – 12 hours per week on classwork.

Major Assignments

Students earn grades that reflect the extent to which they achieve the learning objectives listed above. Opportunities to demonstrate learning are described below. Grades will be based on percentages assigned to several components of the course as follows:

  • Class participation (25% of total course grade)
  • 2 Mini-papers (30% of total course grade)
  • Peer Feedback/Critiques (15% of total course grade)
  • Term Project (30% of total course grade)

Course Schedule

Course Schedule
  • Orientation activities
  • identify what science training contributes to environmental conservation professionals and organizations
  • recognize where my perspective on conservation GIS comes from
  • create an ArcPro map that characterizes land cover within a protected area of your choosing
  • exercise #1
  • Discussion
  • trace the history of parks and protected areas as the primary global environmental/biodiversity conservation strategy
  • identify evidence for and against the effectiveness of parks and protected areas for achieving conservation objectives
  • discuss the role that GIS has played in developing our contemporary understanding of parks and their surroundings
  • Discussion
  • mini-paper writing assignment 1
  • explain what is a complex system in the context of environmental conservation
  • define socio-ecological systems and their characteristics like thresholds, resilience and scale
  • better understand the unique role that GIS plays in discovering and describing socio-ecological systems and how this contributes to environmental conservation efforts
  • Discussion
  • define conservation biology and trace its history as a Western science discipline
  • define conservation GIS and its relationship to conservation biology
  • discuss the role that GIS has played in mainstream contemporary environmental conservation and countercultural response
  • Final project proposal
  • Discussion
  • gain conceptual and technical understanding of the approaches used to create spatial data and models that support landscape and large landscape conservation
  • be able to define habitat suitability modeling and explain how you would create a habitat suitability model
  • understand the power of landscape metrics and what they tell us about socio-ecological systems
  • become familiar with multiple approaches to modeling landscape connectivity for environmental conservation
  • Exercise #2
  • Discussion
  • Define and correctly use technical terminology related to climate change including exposure, sensitivity, impact, adaptive capacity and vulnerability
  • Gain exposure to geospatial and statistical modeling techniques commonly used in the ecological impact of climate change studies, including bioclimate niche modeling
  • Become familiar with an organized approach to identifying climate vulnerabilities to develop conservation adaptation strategies
  • Exercise #2
  • Discussion
  • Final project work
  • describe the contemporary paradigm of natural resource management
  • become familiar with the U.S. federal land management planning process and how natural resource management decisions are made in this context
  • be able to define adaptive natural resource management as an iterative process
  • become familiar with structured decision-making, multi-species multi-criteria decision analysis and the open standards for conservation
  • be able to outline the importance of long-term ecological monitoring and research to the process of ARM
  • Discussion
  • Final project work
  • be able to define and correctly use technical terminology related to climate change including exposure, sensitivity, impact, adaptive capacity and vulnerability
  • gain exposure to geospatial and statistical modeling techniques commonly used in the ecological impact of climate change studies including bioclimate niche modeling
  • become familiar with an organized approach to identifying climate vulnerabilities to develop conservation adaptation strategies
  • Discussion
  • Final project work
  • describe a new paradigm for environmental conservation that includes considerations and quantification of human benefits of protected areas
  • identify several approaches to landscape-scale conservation planning
  • have developed detailed familiarity with The Nature Conservancy’s ecoregional assessments and conservation by design
  • Discussion
  • Final project work
  • gain exposure to and familiarity with several new geospatial technologies that are being used in environmental conservation and will likely increase in use in the future
  • Discussion
  • Final project