Schermerhorn Lecture by Professor Gilmore Pontius
Out of the box thinker
For 120 newly arrived master’s students from 36 different nationalities, yesterday’s traditional Schermerhorn lecture at the Opening of the Academic Year was anything but ordinary. Introduced by ITC Rector Tom Veldkamp, Professor Gilmore Pontius Jr. from Clark University covered a broad range of topics from the latest GIS models to giving students their first ‘dreaded surprise test’ to offering tips on how to ‘teach your colleagues and professors’ a thing or two.
To illustrate reference and comparison maps, the American professor first told students about his 8-year-old daughter Olivia and her own experience of allocating and assessing quantity when she paints in her coloring book that she made herself.
A proud father, he held up a book with blank pages, ‘First we start with a blank slate then we download “vector files”,’ grinned Pontius, gaining the attention of the room of 350 people who watched and laughed at his magical way of making hard science child’s play.’ He held up a coloring book, ‘You see, in the final step, we begin allocation of color and decide on the quantity.’ His simple paint analogy of doing two basic tasks of any working geo-scientist, allocation and quantification, hit home to the older students, many of whom left families and children behind in their native countries.
Keeping his upbeat tempo, he went on to quote the television programme Sesame Street, while showing maps, ‘You see some of these things don’t look like the others.’ And most students agreed, the differences shown in green and red were clearly evident between two comparison maps and a reference map.
In his latest paper published in the International Journal of Remote Sensing, he calls for the ‘Death of Kappa’ and the birth of quantity disagreement and allocation disagreement for accuracy assessment. The argument also to new students, as stated in his abstract, is that Kappa indices are useless, misleading and can be flawed for the practical application of remote sensing.
He advised on the merits of ‘trying to learn the latest mapping technologies. It’s changing from day to day and scientist need to openly communicate.’ Pontius’ basic criterion for selecting a model is to answer a few questions: Is it relevant to your research question? Can you and your audience understand the model? And finally the question begs asking, ‘Can you control the model?’
The trained statistician, whose own graduate students in the states call him only ‘Gil,’ went on to share PowerPoint slides of his personal friend from graduate school, the renown scientist and professor from China, Ye Qi, who was shown shaking hands with Hillary Clinton. With encouraging words, he stated: ‘We expect you to blaze new trails in your area of science. You and the planet will benefit from entering a superb profession’ with the support of ITC and its faculty.
In the end, the crux of his message to students was to not be afraid to speak up and disagree with professors or colleagues. ‘Scientists perceive pressure to confirm that data and models are correct, which hurts learning, while exposure of disagreements helps learning. You will learn things that are fundamentally flawed at ITC and your job is to teach your colleague,’ confirming his believe that the task of any good scientists is to: ‘Ask colleagues to explain precisely what they mean by phrases, such as ‘results are good.’
To reap the full benefits of studying in a foreign country, the out-of-the-box thinker had practical advice for his multinational audience: ‘Don’t live with someone who speaks your own language,’ and ‘work smarter, not necessarily harder.’
Interested students can visit Gil Pontius' home page to obtain copies of his 80 scholarly publications. Professor Pontius is also known as ‘Doctor Stardust’ outside of academic circles and won the People’s Choice Award at the International Jugglers Association Championships.