Game Changers in Hattiban and Dhulikhel

My sixth week at the School of Arts was a mixed bag.
The refresher course and advanced training week for KU staff fell short of what my colleague, Aarti Reddy, and I had planned. All of the Development Studies professors and the dean himself made an appearance at the opening presentation by Young Innovations, but we had lost most of our audience within an hour. When I consulted one of the few remaining scholars, he admitted that many were unwilling to learn ArcGIS because they were frustrated with the early expiration of the software last year. However open the staff may have been to GIS initially, some had become wary of a tool that might suddenly and permanently stop working. There was a handful of teachers who were still willing to learn, and one of them advised us to take a different tact.

Aarti and I agreed with him that, rather than attempting to train all of the professors from the outset, in the long term it would make more sense to train students, who would then pressure their professors to learn the material to better understand their geo-science research findings. This realization reinforced my belief that our most meaningful work at the university would be to design a full-credit GIS course. With this end in mind, Aarti and I began in earnest our search for model syllabi. I had heard that the KU Department of Engineering – located at the main campus in the next valley east of Kathmandu – had some experience with GIS, so I was glad when Dr. Sharma arranged for Aarti and I to travel there.

Our visit to KU headquarters in Dhulikhel was fruitful. The young Masters of Geomatics program (established in 2013) has few graduate scholars at this point, but the broader Engineering Department has offered GIS classes since the 1990s. GIS courses are not available every semester, and professors are tasked with teaching other courses in the interim. In Dhulikhel, geomatics is taught by engineers for engineers, so much of the emphasis is on land use and environmental concerns and on the computer science element of GIS. Social science questions are left to Hattiban for the most part. It is probably not feasible for the School of Arts to host a geomatics professor from the main campus, as the main purpose of the proposed course is to use GIS as a tool for development research. Dr. Sharma and the Banskota insisted that whoever teaches the class must have formal GIS training, a requirement that would be difficult to satisfy in the U.S, and considerably more so in Nepal. To our encouragement, we learned that Engineering Department has other contacts in the geospatial world whom they occasionally invite as guest lecturers or visiting professors. It might be possible to secure a similar arrangement for SOA, but it may take some digging to find a suitable candidate.

Our best lead is ICIMOD, a USAID-NASA partnership organization that already has extensive ties with KU. The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development often employs KU engineering and geomatics students as interns, and has a headquarters just 15 minutes walk from the SOA campus. The dean was once ICIMOD’s Deputy Director, and still has strong ties there. It seemed a logical place to seek out geographic information experts, but Aarti and I needed a better excuse to appear there than to ask for potential professors to teach a largely unfinished course. The opportunity presented itself in short order, when we received an invitation from the Peace Innovation Lab (see Sara Rock’s post on the subject) to spend a week teaching in Lamjung. We accepted the offer, and paid a prompt visit to ICIMOD to ask for hard-copy training materials, as power shortages can be unpredictable during the monsoon months. The geospatial scientist we met with was eager to assist, and promised that he and his coworkers would happily accommodate further requests by our organization in the future. We did not mention the vacant teaching position at KUSOA, but I feel confident that ICIMOD will be a valuable mentor organization to KU and AidData on all things geospatial in Nepal.

Peter Colwell