Designing a better tomorrow

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GeoDesign Student Group blends science with city planning.

When it comes to the cutting edge concept of GeoDesign – using geographic science for community planning and building design – students at Northern Arizona University have jumped ahead of the curve and pioneered a program that is the first of its kind. This program, the GeoDesign Student Group (GDSG), runs in conjunction with the university’s new GeoDesign degree. The program is also unique in its ability to attract students from multiple majors to a common cause.

John Baskett, a senior geographical science and planning major, and one of the five original founders of the GDSG, says the innovative new approach appeals to new students and has helped the group’s roster grow to 15 members.

“We developed the program to include elements of GeoDesign,” Baskett says. “Since the area is really moving in a GeoDesign-oriented way, we wanted to base the club off of GeoDesign concepts with some aspects of planning.”

A changing landscape

Thomas Paradis, the chair of the Department of Geography, Planning, and Recreation and a professor of geography and planning, says the GDSG provides real-world scenarios for students to learn and grow. 

“The university is looking for more interdisciplinary experiences, more ways for the students to start connecting with professionals in the disciplines and to start showing how our students are contributing to the community,” Paradis says. “GDSG has all of that. They’re off to a very good start.” 

Paradis believes the excitement surrounding a new undergraduate degree contributed to the group’s enthusiasm, and that students of different majors were eager to combine geology and planning into one standard that serves as the foundation of the organization.

It’s an exciting direction that the students are seeing us move in overall,” Paradis says. “Former geography and former planning students basically got together to encompass all of these aspects of GeoDesign.” 

Learning by doing

In their attempt to stay professional, the GDSG is developing an application process that students from all majors are encouraged to fill out. Members will be able to attend many of the group’s sponsored events, including guest speaker presentations and bike tours with city planners. Baskett believes this helps their organization appeal to anyone interested in creating a sustainable community, regardless of their area of study.

“I think that even if you’re not in this major, the speakers we have present information in a manner that you don’t have to have prior knowledge of GeoDesign and planning,” Baskett says. “We’re kind of open to all majors in that way.”

In an attempt to facilitate continued growth and progress, the university will open a studio lab on the second floor of the Social and Behavioral Sciences West Building. Faculty and group members can use this lab to teach collaborative student projects, including architectural design and computer-based mapping. These lessons will allow GDSG members to develop a better understanding for geographic information sciences as they hone their designing skills.

Estella Hollander, a senior public planning major and another of the group’s founders, says this hands-on learning provides greater employment opportunities and promotes deeper peer-to-peer interaction.

“It’s a good outlet for people within our majors to learn from each other and expand our knowledge,” Hollander says. “I think it benefits the club to have people from different majors, like civil engineering or environmental science, and get their perspectives on topics that we talk about.”                                                                                             

Setting the standard

Paradis cites the group as the first of its kind in the nation, which he attributes in part to the university’s willingness to adopt a new curriculum. 

“We’re on the vanguard of GeoDesign education in the United States,” Paradis says. “The club’s success goes along with our curriculum being out in the lead. Northern Arizona University has a chance to shine with this, and the student group is really showing off what can be done with that type of interdisciplinary work.”

Andrew Stocker, a senior public planning major and an initial founder, says the success of the GDSG has come from its connections with the Flagstaff community, and that any students interested in joining should take advantage of this opportunity.

“If you’re into geography, community planning, urban design, sustainability, or anything at all related, it would definitely be worthwhile to network with us,” Stocker says. “For the past few years, we’ve been learning a lot and making connections with the city, county and beyond.”