Ryan  Burns, phd

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teaching philosophy
current courses
courses taught
sample syllabi

Teaching Philosophy

I am passionate about helping students understand the ways geographies are produced, maintained, catalyzed, and circulated in and about their everyday lives, and the rich insights a socio-technical perspective can bring to analyzing them. My pedagogy focuses on fostering a spirit of critical thinking and self-actualization, to help students understand their world in a way that empowers them to change it for the better. In my courses, I challenge students to: 1) learn theoretical and methodological approaches geographers engage to explore spatial questions, 2) develop technical and interpretive skills, and 3) understand the ways geographic processes play into their everyday lives and the ways they can impact those processes.

My teaching style is active, engaged and discussion-based. I solicit student discussion from the first day by asking students to connect their experiences to course themes. This approach to student engagement helps students attain higher levels of comprehension than in classrooms that are lecture-based; it also helps me detect which material students grasp well or not. For example, despite having over 100 students currently enrolled in my “Digital Mapping” course, my lectures solicit a high degree of student engagement and interaction. In my “Urban GIS” and “GIS Databases and Programming” courses I distributed a set of problems or questions to small groups and had them devise solutions or contributions, presenting their thoughts to the class and conversing between groups. I began class sessions with students briefly presenting that day’s readings, to draw out the important points and launch classroom discussion. In my courses I have used collaborative digital software such as Github, and web mapping platforms such as Leaflet.js and Python packages to facilitate interactive exploration of ideas related to the course. This approach consistently receives strong student evaluations.

Public scholarship and community engagement are key commitments in my teaching. Most my courses integrate a service learning component, with the goals of extending the pedagogical experience beyond the classroom, and building bridges between the university and surrounding communities. For example, in “Fundamentals of GIS” I have partnered with a Philadelphia community organization oriented towards the elderly, for my students to contribute mapping of their data. I draw inspiration from prior experience with community collaborations as a teaching assistant in the course “GIS Workshop”. In this course group projects were driven by partnerships with organizations such as small, underfunded organizations to large philanthropic institutions, local government, and many others. In these and other collaborations, students learn skills of observation, research, and communication; they also learn how to dissect taken-for-granted phenomena.

Finally, interdisciplinarity factors strongly into my overall pedagogical approach. In my courses I present students with multiple disciplinary perspectives on problems, to highlight the contributions of a spatial perspective to social and political questions; borrowing from the digital humanities, I also use collaborative technologies to help students explain their own disciplinary perspectives to their peers. Cross-disciplinary interests build on my longstanding commitment to interdisciplinary learning, as can be seen in my activities with the Simpson Center for the Humanities and HASTAC.

Current courses

GEOG 457 - Urban and Environmental GIS
GEOG 647: Advanced Research and Applications in GIS

Courses taught

Temple University

GEOG 8068: Web Mapping and Map Servers
Description: In this course, students explore theoretical and practical concepts of web mapping. From a theoretical perspective they study advantages and techniques for publishing, visualizing and accessing maps and data on the Internet. This entails examining architectures of Web GIS/Web mapping systems, markup languages (e.g. HTML, XML, and KML), scripting languages, screen cartography, data sharing, and geoportals. They also develop some ways of thinking about the social, political, and economic impacts of web mapping as a set of practices and knowledges. From a practical perspective students learn to develop Web mapping applications including static and interactive platforms. They learn and work with some well-known open source software and libraries as well as proprietary options.

GEOG 3062/5062: Fundamentals of GIS
Description: The purpose of this course is to teach the theory and practical use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Major components of the course include computer representation of geographic information, the construction of GIS databases, spatial analysis with GIS, application areas of GIS, and social and management issues that concern GIS. At the end of the course the student is expected to have an understanding of elementary GIS theory, working knowledge of ArcGIS, and the ability to develop GISbased solutions to geographic modeling and analysis tasks. This is not a software training course. You will indeed finish the course with advanced skills in a specific GIS software package. However, broader learning objectives for this course include general scientific literacy and graphicacy (the understanding and creation of maps and other graphic representations), as well as developing critical thinking skills.

GEOG 0821: From Mercator to Mashups: Digital Mapping
Description: The purpose of this course is to teach the general principles of quantitative and qualitative reasoning and spatial literacy through mapping. Topics covered include fundamental principles of mapping, such as projections and coordinate systems, scale and resolution, and spatial patterns and relationships. Mapping techniques such as choropleth mapping and cartograms will also be covered, as will approaches for mapping demographic and environmental phenomena. Emphasis will be placed on the technologies that support digital mapping, including geographic information systems (GIS) and mapping ‘mashups’. At the end of the course, students will think critically about current issues around mapping.

University of Washington

GEOG 465: GIS Databases and Programming
Description: This course will look at how to manage and interact with the increasingly huge amounts of geographic data being generated around the world. The complex world of geographic data management changes rapidly and substantially, opening exciting opportunities for those who wish to explore geographic patterns and processes. Geographers use this data to learn and communicate information about the world we live in. Databases are a fundamental technology to traditional GIS, but data management is quickly expanding beyond this approach. This course will help students learn how to develop and interact with databases and database management systems. However, this course will also explore exciting new ways of collecting, interacting with, and representing geographic data, such as web mapping and Big Data. Students will get hands-on experience with Python as the vehicle for data management, and will learn how to program/script both in ESRI’s ArcGIS suite as well as outside of it.

GEOG 461: Urban GIS (summer course)
Description: This course builds on your previous introductory-level coursework in GIS, through a more in-depth examination of urban applications of GIS, and the data structures, source, and analysis techniques used in them. We will explore urban spatial analysis and decision making in a GIS environment, including project planning, spatial data acquisition, data preparation and coding, analysis and visualization of project findings, and communication and implementation of project results. You will gain experience in locating and obtaining geospatial data from local, state, and federal government sources; developing primary data for urban spatial analysis; and analyzing and representing these data using desktop GIS software. We examine a range of urban uses of GIS, including crime analysis, geo-demographic analysis, transportation and routing application, environmental justice advocacy, and public health applications. Underlying this course is the question of “what is the urban?”, which has been formulated to challenge the often-present assumption of an urban/rural binary.

GEOG 301: Cultural Geography
Description: This course delves into how the idea of “culture” comes to be embedded in everyday geographies, and then shapes lived experiences. We will consider multiple theoretical lenses for looking at the ways in which cultures are constructed, maintained, and contested through space- and place-making processes. Geographers look at “culture” to understand the ways these geographies are used as tools of inclusion or exclusion, as sites for resistance, and sites for power relations. We will look at many perspectives on how this happens and critically examine the effects of these processes. Technology increasingly plays a major role in the making of cultural geographies, and is a common medium through which spaces and places are experienced. In this course we will consider many conceptual lenses, but ground those lenses in our experiences with spatial technologies. The course will consider “apps,” “crowdsourcing,” “digital humanitarianism,” and “smart cities,” among other new ways cultural geographies are produced and encountered in our everyday lives.

GEOG 102: The Making of World Regions (online)
Description: Why do we divide the world up as we do? How have these divisions changed over time? Who controls and defines these divisions and to what end (for whose benefit)? This course will both familiarize you with different regions of the world, and help to expand your understanding of the socially constructed nature of these divisions. We often take these divisions for granted as natural or pre-given (e.g., we all know where “Latin America” is, right?), but we often overlook the fact that these have changed dramatically over time, due to social and political circumstances. In this course we will critically examine the formation, adaptation, and conflict over the division of the world into distinctive regions as we know them today. In effect, we will be engaging in a critical geography of the world. In addition to the course textbook, which takes a relatively traditional approach to studying the regions of the world, you will watch films, listen to speeches, and analyze art and maps, all of which encourage you to question these divisions.

Teaching assistant at SDSU and UW

University of Washington Department of Geography. Winter 2012-Spring 2012, Autumn 2014. Taught the lab portions of “Introduction to GIS”, “Urban GIS”, and “GIS Workshop”

San Diego State University Department of Geography. Fall 2007-Spring 2008. Taught a total of four laboratory sections: “Introduction to GIS” (twice), “Map Investigation”, and “Animated Cartographic Design”.

Guest lectures

ENST 2097 (2016): “Research Design in Environmental Studies”. Discussed the use of GIS for environmental research.

GEOG 360 (2014): “Introduction to GIS”. Discussed qualitative GIS: how it is conducted, its advantages and drawbacks, and the way qualitative data can be collected and visualized.

GEOG 277 (2014): “Geographies of Cities”. Discussed the implications of digital humanitarianism on urban processes, including policy, resource allocation, and representations of the city.

GEOG 469/569 (2012): “GIS Workshop”. Introduced the use of Python for GIS analysis.

GEOG 461/561 (2012): “Urban GIS”. Discussed urban administration and policymaking using GIS, with a particular focus on urban politics and community organizations.

“Participatory Mapping” Imagining America Site Visit (2011). Discussed how data is collected, managed, and visualized using GIS. The audience were humanists, scholars, and activists.


2016 Taylor Institute: Teaching Academy. This meet-and-greet allowed recipients of UofC teaching awards to share their methods and approaches to effective and engaged teaching.

2016 Taylor Institute: Creating an Effective Course Outline. In this workshop the participants shared strategies for developing meaningful and impactful learning goals, course descriptions, course outlines, and syllabi.

2016 Taylor Institute: Course Design Program. In this 4-part workshop series, participants workshopped their course outlines and learning goals, getting direct feedback and collaborated on effective outline writing.

Sample syllabi

Web mapping

Fundamentals of GIS

GIS Databases & Programming

Urban GIS

Digital mapping: From Mercator to mashups

Cultural geography