REU Site: Addressing Social and Environmental Disparities through Community Geography and Geographic Information SystemsNSF_Logo

NSF Award #1156755, Budget: $350,000, Dates: February 2012-July 2015

Prior to his arrival at UCF in August 2015, Dr. Timothy L. Hawthorne was the Principal Investigator of the nation’s first community geography and GIS REU Site in Atlanta, Georgia while an Assistant Professor of Geography at Georgia State University.  The Atlanta Community Geography and GIS REU Site was a tremendous success and a collaborative effort with Co-PI Dr. Katherine Hankins, Associate Professor of Geography at Georgia State University (Dr. Hankins is now PI of the Atlanta work given Dr. Hawthorne’s departure from GSU).  The lessons learned from his successful REU Site in Atlanta led him to conceptualize the UCF REU Site in Belize and focus on expanding community geography models into international settings to include his previous Belize research and teaching experiences.  In part due to the success of the Atlanta REU Site, he was recognized by the Georgia State University Honors College in Spring 2015 as the GSU Faculty Undergraduate Research Mentor of the Year.


Intellectual Merit: The six-week summer REU site engages a diverse group of students, faculty and community members in community-based geographic inquiry of social and environmental disparities in Atlanta neighborhoods, including examinations of neighborhood change, property markets, air quality, urban green spaces, and neighborhood visioning. With an explicit focus on community geography, university-community partnerships and participatory methodologies, the research training program is among the first of its kind for undergraduates in the United States. The REU aims to develop well-prepared, ethical researchers who are committed to community-based research for addressing social and environmental disparities. The site also seeks to develop a new conceptual framework for community geography, an emerging subfield of geography that draws from Participatory GIS (PGIS), mixed methodologies, and critical urban theory. Community geography places explicit emphasis on identifying the spatial thinking and local knowledges that emerge from neighborhood residents’ experiences and seeks to affect positive community change, in a variety of ways, whether it is to visualize challenges and assets, improve service delivery, or more accurately identify geographic disparities. Undergraduates and faculty mentors in this project investigate the spatial thinking and local knowledges of residents who seek to address social and environmental disparities in Atlanta.

Broader Impacts: The most important impact is that the site is among the first U.S.-based undergraduate training programs explicitly focused on community-based geographic inquiry where undergraduates develop their interests in community geography. Second, there is an opportunity for knowledge discovery to identify and mitigate social and environmental disparities in urban neighborhoods. Third, each student will be confronted with real-life examples/conflicts in research ethics. Fourth, there is practical significance for local communities as shared products and data are developed in the forms of maps, datasets, an online GIS server, non-technical reports, oral histories and multimedia. Finally, knowledge and practices gained from the site can lead to disciplinary transformation as the team develops a new conceptual framework for community geography.



Atlanta REU Site participants in 2014 presenting their research at CURVE at Georgia State University.

Atlanta REU Site participants in 2014 presenting their research at CURVE at Georgia State University.

Atlanta REU Site Highlights

Community geography at time of award was a growing subfield, but was not as widespread as the team believes it has become since the grant began. Students presented 36 conference presentations/posters; the REU hosted a full day of panel discussions on community geography at the Association of American Geographers meetings; and the website had over 24,000 hits. Each year the program averaged over 200 applications. These numbers suggest a growing demand within the discipline of geography and related fields. Applicants commented that the REU offered something unique: a focus on engaged, community-based scholarship. The REU Site challenged the ways in which students viewed academic research and how they could co-produce knowledge with local residents and organizations. The REU provided an enhanced understanding of science and technology to the general public as Trees Atlanta, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Charis Community Housing, Eco-Action, AgroEcology Center, GA Geographic Alliance, and others engaged in the research. The REU led to internal funding ($82,000) to create the Atlanta Community Mapping and Research Center to continue REU work and foster new community geography research opportunities.  Participants: 42 students total (16, 14, and 12 respectively); nearly 70% were female. Students were from all over the country with no regional bias.

Overview of Research Tracks

  • Track 1: In Mapping property dynamics in South Atlanta, students answered the question: how do organizations that construct affordable housing impact the economic and social dynamics in the neighborhoods in which they operate? Researchers investigated a local non-profit’s spatial strategies and how it navigates multiple stakeholders involved in renovating and selling/renting affordable housing. In The Listening Project:  Documenting sites of social struggle in the city for the People’s Guide to Atlanta, students documented historic and contemporary stories from residents about sites of oppression, resistance, and struggle in the everyday spaces and places of Atlanta. They highlighted particular events or spaces that mark moments, whether temporary or sustained, of resistance to dominant power relations. The track used in-depth interviews, GIS, narrative analysis, and focus groups.

    2013 Atlanta REU students teaching community youth about mobile mapping applications with ArcGIS Collector.

    2013 Atlanta REU students teaching community youth about mobile mapping applications with ArcGIS Collector.

  • Track 2: Students worked to answer the question: what are the social and biological dimensions of Atlanta green spaces?  Three local non-profits helped develop a variety of deliverables to: a) showcase the attributes of urban green spaces (i.e. native species, non-native invasive species, trails, infrastructure, historical points of interest, and environmental quality issues) and b) understand the physical, social, and historical dimensions of adjacent neighborhoods and properties. Students used GIS, GPS, and related quantitative and qualitative methods to map green spaces and understand resident perceptions of these spaces. They also completed focus groups and in-depth interviews to understand the socio-spatial barriers and attractions to green space accessibility.
  • Track 3: In years one and two, students explored the question: where are poor environmental quality hotspots in southwest Atlanta? Students documented striking results about air quality issues in Southwest Atlanta neighborhoods and helped multiple organizations understand these issues and develop new research questions for future study. Students used GIS and geo-chemical analyses to explore spatial patterns of air quality. In year two, students also began a new sub-track at the request of the community partner organizations studying microbial and geochemical contaminants in the Chattahoochee River.  They collected sediment samples and learned basic methods of microbial and geochemical analysis along with GIS mapping. Due to a faculty mentor accepting a chair position, the track shifted focus to urban farming in year three. Students considered the research question: what are the barriers and pathways to community-based urban agriculture in urban Atlanta? Students worked with GIS, in-depth interviews, and story maps to document the struggles urban farmers face while accessing resources.

Scholarly Products from the Atlanta REU Site:

  • Publications: While the summer REU ended in 2014, student co-authored papers were published in Applied Geography and are under review in Geoforum. Additional papers are near submission to The Professional Geographer, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Urban Geography, Progress in Human Geography, and The Geographical Review.
  • Presentations: 36 student co-authored presentations occurred: 2013 Harvard Annual GIS Conference (2); Association of American Geographers (2013: 4, 2014: 4; 2015: 8); Southeastern Division of AAG (2012: 2, 2013: 1, 2015: 1); Council for Undergraduate Research (2); Geological Society of America (2012: 5, 2013: 4); National Cartographic Information Society (1); and Applied Geography (2). Faculty also gave invited talks at Skidmore College, Brown University, Kent State University, University of Georgia, West Virginia University, University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and University of South Carolina.
  • Accomplishments: Post-program tracking is ongoing, but a few accomplishments include graduate school acceptance at Yale, UC Berkeley, Georgia State University, Emory, Georgia Tech, and Brown. One student received a Fulbright. Two received NSF Graduate Fellowships and one received a Ford Foundation Fellowship. Six Honors theses related to REU work were completed. Alumni accepted meaningful employment opportunities with ESRI, the World Resources Institute in DC, the National Park Service, and Wildlands Conservancy. One student received an ESRI conservation grant to complete REU inspired work with farmers in Malawi. Another student completed a second REU.

    Atlanta REU students using helium balloons and iPhones to map an urban garden from above.

    Atlanta REU students using helium balloons and iPhones to map an urban garden from above.

External Evaluation Results:

  • The first two sections, on the community research and the various aspects of the program, included 12 one or two part questions to be answered on a 5-point Likert Scale, using semantic differential methodology. The last section included six open-ended questions.
  • Means and standard deviations of the relevant 5-point Likert scale questions were calculated for each track each year using SPSS descriptive statistics (means were well over 4.25 out of 5 on almost all questions). Open-ended questions were transcribed and organized by track. They were analyzed qualitatively with attention to track similarities and differences using constant comparative analysis (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) to find emerging themes.
  • Students in general became more interested in research, using such terms as “gained more clarification,” “supported my career plans,” “clearer direction,” and “solidified” interest in community geography research and academia.
  • Students listed many skills and insights gained over the summer, including: how to do mixed methods research; the importance of community engagement in research that is meaningful to neighborhoods; reflections on one’s position as a researcher; and the importance of flexibility.
  • Student comments below are representative of the program’s key attributes. One student found the program “to be an extremely interesting way to combine the physical and social sciences, which I have been searching for during my last 3 years of my undergraduate studies.” In terms of mentorship, several commented that they expected to be told more what to do and found it a positive experience to be given more freedom than they expected. One student noted that: “when I began my undergraduate career, I never even thought of doing an REU but this one really peaked my interest which I think more REU’s should be doing. I’m very proud of what I have done and the community that I worked with considers me family. Some things were out of my comfort zone but that’s exactly what I needed to learn more. I’m really glad I got to meet the people I did and help the underserved.”