Document Type

Conference Proceeding


Engineering (HMC)

Publication Date



The use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) was implemented in the upper-division undergraduate technical elective Introduction to Environmental Engineering at Harvey Mudd College. Students integrated technical engineering skills, newly-learned geographical information system (GIS) skills, and the engineering design process, all in the context of the design of a debris flow barrier for a wilderness land parcel acquired by a local conservancy group.

Junior and senior general engineering students, the majority of whom had no experience with GIS, were taught ArcGIS (a GIS mapping program) in the context of an Introductory Environmental Engineering course. Students learned how to map locations, find and download geo-encoded data, and join data layers, in order to graphically present toxic release hazards near their home towns. ArcGIS skills and knowledge were assessed through completion of homework problems, and through the students’ use of GIS data, software, and mapping during the design of a debris flow barrier for a local wilderness land parcel.

Assignment #1 consisted of students learning how to map and characterize toxic releases near their hometowns; these data were downloaded into a spreadsheet for later use in the ArcGIS software package. In Assignment #2, the students used ArcGIS to analyze these data for the potential of water, soil, and atmospheric transport. In addition to the homework assignments, the student team completed a team-based design project involving the characterization of the wilderness site; acquiring relevant GIS data; and studying the physics of debris flow. The team produced alternative designs for the barrier and chose the best design by applying design metrics. The alternative designs and rationale for the chosen design were presented to the board of directors of the local conservancy group.

Pre- and post-assessment data were gathered to analyze the success of the learning objectives. The design project in particular was useful in evaluating the students’ skill, knowledge and ease in using the GIS tools for analysis of the wilderness land parcel.

Rights Information

© 2013 American Society for Engineering Education