The Surveyors of Our Future

August 1, 2007
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A student uses a plane table to create a topographic map at the 2005 competition in Las Vegas. Photo courtesy of Lieca N. Hohner.


With each annual spring American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) conference, an increasing number of students from surveying programs across the country gather to demonstrate the skills they’ve acquired from their schooling. Once a year, these future surveyors compete to win one of the most glorified events at the ACSM conference--the Surveying Student Competition. Created and hosted by ACSM’s member organization the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS), the competition’s lineage isn’t long but is filled with dedication, excitement and challenge.



Students participating in the 2007 NSPS Surveying Student Competition performed on the national park grounds under the St. Louis Arch.

Creating a Team Competition

In 2000, members of the NSPS Education Committee first sought to create an educational event that encouraged competition among students in the surveying profession. The committee, consisting of faculty members from surveying programs around the country, members of the NSPS Board of Governors and other various individuals whose positions relate to the education of surveying, was organized to support educational endeavors within the surveying profession.

Mike Besch, professor and program director of the surveying and mapping engineering technology program at the University of Akron in Ohio and long-standing member of the NSPS Education Committee, participated in the development of what is now known as the NSPS Surveying Student Competition. “As part of our mission, we wanted to promote surveying in the eyes of the public,” Besch says. “That meant creating a media event for surveyors--something comparable to competitions that have been held for years among engineers and architects.”

From Concept to Contest

At the 2001 annual ACSM conference in Las Vegas, the committee announced its plan to sponsor the first surveying student team competition at the upcoming 2002 annual spring ACSM conference. Eligible participants were specified as students enrolled in a surveying, geomatics or similarly named degree-granting program in teams of three to six students.

The competition was designed to include a technical surveying problem or set of problems with various guidelines relating to the problem topic created by the NSPS Education Committee. The problems are made available no later than September 15 preceding the annual spring ACSM conference. Students study the problem, conduct appropriate research and solve the problem (or problems), while meeting all of the specified constraints."¯Subsequently, students are required to complete three components of the competition: an academic exercise consisting of a research paper completed on the students’ own time; a mechanical portion involving the construction of tools; and a demonstration component where students present their work before a panel of judges at the annual ACSM conference.

To generate a suitable problem for the students, the education committee agreed to accept proposals for problems and themes from both academic and non-academic surveying professionals one year before each annual competition is to take place.



The winners of the 2007 competition from Ferris State University (Michigan) proudly display their award.

A Tradition is Born

The first competition took place in Washington, D.C., at the 2002 annual spring ACSM conference. A total of six teams participated in the competition centered around the theme of Roman surveying. The problem called for students to reconstruct and demonstrate the surveying tools and methods used to build the vast network of roads and aqueducts built by the Romans. Points were awarded to teams for authenticity of equipment reproduction, and for speed and accuracy in surveying the placement of survey stakes for one or more structures at the competition site. Teams were also required to align and level the structures and record measurements in Roman units. Judges encouraged students to use materials similar to those used by the Romans to build their equipment.

The student teams were also instructed to prepare a report documenting the research they performed to replicate their instrumentation and measurements. The reports were turned in with the team application to compete at the 2002 conference. In the end, the team from the University of Akron took first place and received a plaque for their efforts.

Selecting an Integral Panel

Equally integral to students’ effort in the competition is the judging panel. A total of five judges with limited three-year terms moderate each year’s competition. The NSPS Board of Governors appoints two of the five judges and the NSPS Board of Directors appoints the remaining three. To be an eligible judge, a candidate must be an NSPS member in good standing. Members from the NSPS Board of Governors and the Board of Directors nominate suitable candidates and then vote to add the candidates to the existing panel of judges. Most judges carry out three-year terms; those who do not are replaced by a judge selected by the two boards.

Dave Ingram of Mount Crawford, Va.-based Ingram-Hagen & Co. PLC, began his involvement with the student competition as one of the five original judges in 2002. Since then, Ingram has taken on the role of overseeing the competition. “The way the competition was originally set up ensures that there’s at least one new judge on the panel for each competition,” Ingram explains. “It’s a fair system. Anyone who is interested in surveying education is welcome to undertake the position of a judge for the competition.”

The legendary winner of the optional costume competition, the University of Akron (Ohio), recreates an artillery section of the Vietnam War for the 2006 competition. Photo courtesy of James P. Hohner Jr.

Judging With A Critical Eye

Each competition’s selected panel of five judges is tasked with reviewing the research reports and selecting a winning student team. Although the research paper component often carries a large amount of weight, John Fenn, PLS, a judge for the last three years, believes the ultimate deciding factors are found in the field exercise. “As a judge, I make a lot of observations during the field exercise portion of the competition,” Fenn says. “I observe what type of equipment is being used and I’m always impressed when I see a team using a book of tables without the assistance of a calculator.”

Lynn Savory, RPLS, an NSPS director and judge for the last three competitions, is most interested in what tools and instruments the teams utilize during the field exercise. “I listen to the students as they work,” Savory says. “I can tell that many of the teams have developed a plan before arriving to the conference.”

A common element that all of the judges look for in the students is a collaborative team effort. Although the judges try to keep their distance and observe the students from an objective standpoint, they watch to see if students work through the problem without consulting their attending professor.


And the Winner Is"¦

To maintain a level of objectivity among the judges, the education committee created a points system to judge the components of the competition. The first year’s competition, for example, was worth 100 points broken down into three parts: the research report or paper (25 points); the equipment reproduction (25 points); and the speed of structure layout (50 points). Following review of each component, the judges determine the winner as the team with the highest number of points. Point assignments can vary from year to year, depending on the theme of the competition.

The 2007 competition, for instance, themed around historical railroad surveying, focused solely on the research and field exercise components of the competition. Since the submitted paper had the most relevance to this year’s problem, it was worth a total of 60 points. The field exercise--still significant to the competition--carried a total of 40 points.

In addition to vying for first place in the academic portion of the competition, students also have a chance to score points for their creative sides. During the first student competition in 2002, a few participating schools, including the University of Akron, went beyond the competition guidelines and added their own creative touch. “Since we were working on a project involving the surveying of Romans, we decided--why not dress up like the Romans?” Besch says. Because several teams came to the field exercise with elaborate costumes relating to Roman times, NSPS amended the original guidelines and added an optional costume award.

The costume award gave no additional weight to the judges’ scoring of the competition problem; however, as students quickly began to take pride in how they represented themselves at the competition, the optional costume award became a significant part of the event. “We take the costume portion of the competition very seriously,” a University of Akron student claims. “Whatever surveying topic is presented, we do our best to dress in representation of its appropriate time period.” Teams choose their costumes at their own discretion, but in doing so are required to compile an appendix to their research paper describing how their chosen costume relates to the theme of the competition.

A Growing Program

Since its inception in 2002, the Surveying Student Competition has been acclaimed for its success--and its expansion--among students, instructors, judges and supporters. Many repeat competitors, such as Michigan’s Ferris State University (FSU) and the University of Akron, participate year after year while newcomers also join the competition.

“This is a growing program,” Ingram says. “More schools have been getting involved each year. When NSPS first kicked off the competition six years ago in Las Vegas, six teams participated; this year’s competition in St. Louis brought a total of 11 teams from around the country to compete.”

Due to the changing location of the annual ACSM conference around the United States, schools located in close proximity to the conference location have been more likely to participate. In 2006, however, a team from Oregon made its way to Orlando, Fla., for the competition. The 2006 conference also had its first participant from outside the United States--the University of Puerto Rico.

Investing in the Future

One thing is for sure: The NSPS Surveying Student Competition yields a fun and challenging environment and provides students with a unique outlook on the surveying profession. “Winning or not, at the end of the day, we realize that we have a great time participating in the competition,” says Mike Tyler, a senior student in FSU’s surveying technology program. “The competition is a great experience for us. The junior members of our team are already looking forward to next year’s competition.”

From the creation of the problem to each team’s field exercise and presentation, the NSPS Education Committee keeps the competition exciting for the students each year. “The goal of NSPS is to encourage students to get excited about surveying and to realize the value of the profession,” Ingram says. “The annual ACSM conference is the perfect arena for students to learn and participate in the surveying profession.” The conference setting provides students with an opportunity to interact with other students on a national level, as well as with the unique body of professional surveyors, engineers and other affiliates attending the conference.

The research completed for the competition also provides students with hands-on experience in the surveying profession. While the competition engages students in topics that are often foundational and provide a good understanding of historical or basic surveying methods, techniques and times, they merely cover the surface of these complex topics. The hope of NSPS and the profession at large is that these students walk away from the competition having learned something and with a desire to learn more about the surveying methods presented throughout the competition.

A Bright Outlook

As more and more students from surveying or similarly related programs across the country enter the competition each year, the outlook for the future of the profession brightens. The students’ hard work and dedication demonstrates that the future of surveying is in good hands. “The content of the students’ work gets better each year,” Ingram says. “The papers submitted have significantly improved since the first competition and are becoming more and more sophisticated. The costumes are even becoming more detailed and intricate.”

Fenn is also impressed with what the students bring to the competition. “As judges, we actually learn something each year from the students,” he says. “Although I’ve been involved with the surveying profession for years, I learn a lot from the papers the students submitted. This year, for example, I learned a lot about the history of railroad surveying.”

Savory echoes Fenn: “The students come to the competition well prepared and show us that there is hope for the future of the surveying profession. We have faith that these students will succeed as professional surveyors in the future.”

Sidebar: The 2008 Challenge

The 2008 Surveying Student Competition research paper involves a historically significant survey, preferably from the team’s state or region. The paper should include background information about events leading up to the need for the survey, the survey itself (including personnel, techniques and equipment used, etc.) and the subsequent significance of the survey (including relationships to modern boundaries, litigation, etc.). The format of the research paper should conform to the publication guidelines for ACSM’s Surveying and Land Information Science journal.

Participating teams will also be required to prepare one poster describing their chosen topic. The poster should include a concise summary of the highlighed survey and will be displayed in the exhibit hall at the ACSM Conference and Technology Exhibit.

The field exercise has not yet been announced. Stay tuned to POB for further details.

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