Pioneer Spotlight: Dr. Lynnette Dornak

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Pioneer Spotlight
Lynette Dornak
May 11, 2018

Dr. Lynnette Dornak believes that engaging students in hands-on learning is one of the most powerful ways that she can inspire them – whether they are solving geographic information system-related problems in the computer lab or digging in the muck for salamanders on a geography field trip.

Dornak, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville since June 2014, teaches courses in geographic information systems, or GIS, Planet Earth, guided research and senior seminar. Her specialties include biogeography, ecological niche modeling, spatial analysis and remote sensing. Dornak enjoys involving students in her research projects, which focus on the spatial distributions of species. Through their research, students learn GIS skills, modeling concepts and ecological theory.

In her free time, Dornak (a.k.a., Raven Loonatik) skates for the Dubuque Bomb Squad Roller Derby and enjoys spending time with her boyfriend and their four dogs.

In Spring 2017, you received the Innovations in Technology for Teaching and Learning Award for a project involving an Augmented Reality Sandbox, which combines 3D visualization and real-time mapping with a simple sandbox. How do you use this technology in your classroom?

Receiving the award meant that we could add one more means of hands-on learning in our Planet Earth labs as well as other geography courses. Students who are presented 2D formats, like topographic maps, often have difficulty grasping 3D concepts. The Augmented Reality Sandbox assists students with this, connecting the 2D flat maps with the 3D structures they represent. It is currently in operation, and we are working to add functionality that will increase its potential across topics and courses. I would eventually like to work the information into my GIS courses.

How do you incorporate undergraduate research into your classroom? Why is this type of learning so important?

There are two ways: in my Guided Research course, I am able to work closely with students on research projects. In more traditional courses, we work with data from ongoing or recently concluded research projects. This type of learning allows us to explore different methods for analyzing data and gives the students “real,” and sometimes very messy, data with which to work, rather than canned data sets where the results are wrapped up nicely.

Students in your GIS class have conducted several collaborative projects in the community. What projects had the most impact? What are your plans for future collaborations?

My classes have collaborated with local businesses to build online maps of the local products they carry. I like the idea of involving students with their communities; a relationship between university and off-campus community is important. Furthermore, I think these types of projects give the students a sense of purpose in their projects – particularly when the products are useful.

We have also worked closely with the Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Office to digitize historic data and maps from the Wisconsin Land Economic Inventory (Bordner Survey). Through this project, I helped students connect to a small piece of Wisconsin history. In addition to producing digital maps from these data, the students also created a story map – synthesizing some theme from their data set. Our collaboration with the state cartographer’s office will continue through this next year. In the coming semesters, I hope to find more community focused projects with which to engage my students.

You have co-led a three-week geography field experience in the western United States for three years, with the fourth this summer. Many students have found the experience to be life-changing. Can you explain this?

I can only speculate, but perhaps the transformative experience is a result of the physical interaction between the student and the academic material. Reading about cultural and historic parks (e.g., Chaco Culture National Historical Park) cannot deliver the same impact as walking through the ruins. I think the most enjoyable part is watching students engage with the material in person and develop an appreciation for the physical and cultural geography found within the United States.

Is there something unique and exciting that your students are doing this semester?

This semester, Greg Arther, a senior geography major, will be completing his Lyme Disease spatial modeling project. Greg’s project examines the potential exposure risk of Lyme Disease by modeling the potential distributions of the hosts and vector species of the disease in current and future periods. He has also recently attended a national conference (American Association of Geographers) and delivered an academic paper. We will continue to work together to submit a manuscript to a refereed journal.

I have other students working on spatial suitability models on the Venus Fly Trap, Franklin’s Ground Squirrel and wintering populations of Henslow’s Sparrow. Each student is using Ecological Niche Modeling to examine the distributions of their selected species. These models may help UW-Platteville researchers working on these species to understand more completely the ecology and impacts of climate change on those distributions.

Interview conducted by Laurie A. Hamer, UW-Platteville College of Liberal Arts and Education. To nominate someone who is digging in and making a difference, for the Pioneer Spotlight, email


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