Hacia La Excelencia: Toward Excellence

March 28, 2008
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While many lament that new surveyors are entering the profession with insufficient mathematical skills or drive, this is not true of the surveying graduates at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). Surveying students at UPR are very comfortable with trigonometry and easily handle the calculus and matrix algebra necessary for least squares adjustments, map projections and physical geodesy courses. In fact, UPR students not only demonstrate a passion for their studies, they have a passion for surveying in general.


UPR surveying students confer while making RTK GPS observations during a coastal surveying project on Isla Magueyes along the southern coast of Puerto Rico.


While many lament that new surveyors are entering the profession with insufficient mathematical skills or drive, this is not true of the surveying graduates at the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). Surveying students at UPR are very comfortable with trigonometry and easily handle the calculus and matrix algebra necessary for least squares adjustments, map projections and physical geodesy courses. In fact, UPR students not only demonstrate a passion for their studies, they have a passion for surveying in general.

After more than 45 years as a practicing surveyor, I am currently a visiting professor in the surveying program at UPR. It’s been a challenging--but highly rewarding--experience to participate in the educational process after years of using the results of that process. And from my vantage point, the students graduating from the UPR surveying program appear to be remarkable candidates for the profession.

How UPR students are conditioned for the profession and supported every step of the way toward graduation is a story as beautiful as the island’s tropical beaches. It’s a story that speaks of a rich curriculum, an encouraging program management and a partnership between the university and the Puerto Rican professional association of engineers and surveyors.

The author, professor George Cole, demonstrates the use of a Worden gravity meter during a physical geodesy course at UPR.

The Program's Makeup

The origin of the university’s surveying program dates back to the mid-1970s when its College of Engineering sent two promising students to Ohio State University (OSU) to study geodesy. After receiving graduate degrees, the students returned to UPR to design its surveying program. In 1983, the program, now housed at the university’s Mayagüez campus, produced its first graduates.

Today, the program offers a Bachelor of Science in Land Surveying and Topography. The typical student completes the 148-credit-hour program, which includes the core science and humanities courses, in five years. The degree consists of two basic surveying courses; survey graphics; adjustment calculations; geodesy; physical geodesy; astronomy; geodetic astronomy; highway planning and design; optics for photogrammetry and surveying; photogrammetry; map projections; legal aspects of surveying; and a special topics in surveying course, which generally covers emerging technology. Electives include courses on GIS, sea level measurements and special projects. The basic surveying courses provide hands-on instruction using instruments such as transits, chains and dumpy levels and progress to more sophisticated equipment.

The program also requires completion of a summer-camp component between the third and fourth years of study in which students are expected to complete a major real-world survey project. The proposed project for summer 2008 is to create a GIS map for the campus’ storm water management system, which will include establishing a series of control monuments throughout the campus using RTK GPS technology. Topographic surveys using conventional technology from the control monuments will then be conducted to map all of the utilities, roads, buildings, trees, etc. The data will be placed into CAD files and a GIS for use in permitting and managing the storm water system.

Additionally, the program’s management encourages involvement with various governmental programs that include a surveying element to give the students real-life experiences. For example, faculty and students have been involved in performing geodetic leveling associated with the installation and maintenance of several tide stations, which are being installed as part of the island’s tsunami warning system and are part of the NOAA tidal datum network. Other projects have included establishing segments of the island’s marine boundary, and under consideration is a project to develop a land information and permit-tracking system for the municipality of Mayagüez.

In an effort to ensure that the primarily Spanish-speaking students are bilingual, the required curriculum for surveying majors includes multilingual (English and Spanish) courses. All surveying textbooks used in the program are in English, and a number of the courses are conducted in English.

UPR surveying students work on a class assignment in the GIS lab on campus.

The Program's Growth

Unlike many of the surveying programs on the mainland, UPR’s surveying program is growing steadily and currently boasts one of the largest numbers of undergraduate students in the United States. Program enrollment has seen substantial growth since its inception, particularly in the last decade. Currently, about 350 students are enrolled in the program, and most are native Puerto Ricans entering directly from high school. An interesting aspect of the program’s growth is the number of female students: The current percentage of female students averages more than 25 percent.

In discussions on the topic of female enrollment in the surveying program, female students unanimously indicate that they have chosen land surveying because it offers an exciting and interesting career. Vanessa Torres Mendosa, president of the student surveying association, Capítulo Estudiantíl del Instituto de Agrimensores, originally planned to study civil engineering. But after being exposed to the surveying curriculum, she decided that surveying was more interesting. “I especially enjoy the field work,” she says. “I don’t mind getting my hands dirty, and I enjoy the challenge of making precise measurements in the field.” Torres Mendosa spent last summer doing GIS work in Washington as a student intern with the U.S. Geological Survey. She currently works one day a week with a local surveyor to gain practical experience and is preparing for the NCEES Fundamentals of Surveying exam, which she will take this month. Although Torres Mendosa is considering graduate school after she receives her degree this year, she says she is leaning toward full-time work as a surveyor.

A great deal of the program’s growth can be attributed to a partnership between the university and the Colegio de Ingenieros y Agrimensores de Puerto Rico (CIAPR), the professional association of engineers and surveyors in Puerto Rico, which serves as the regulatory body for engineering and surveying. Membership in CIAPR is mandatory for registration in Puerto Rico.

The partnership between the organization and the university resulted in a program called Academic and Professional Internship where a number of eleventh-grade high school students are selected for a three-day stay at the university each year. While there, students receive instruction and hands-on training with surveying instruments. Last year’s program included a day trip to Isla Magueyes, a small island along the southern coast of Puerto Rico, where students had a cookout, participated in a geocaching competition and took a boat tour on the island’s phosphorescent bay.

Also contributing to the program’s growth are orientation events for the island’s high school counselors and teachers and the university/CIAPR partnership’s sponsoring of the NSPS TrigStar trigonometry competition for high school students. Through these partnership programs, enrollment in the surveying program has almost doubled from about 200 to more than 350 in the five years since the partnership began.

A group of iguanas was one of the obstacles encountered during a student surveying project on Magueyes Island.

The program’s retention rate is also quite good. While no direct statistics for the retention rate exist, an estimation can be obtained from the graduation rate. Assuming that the average student graduates in five years, and using the very crude statistic of the number of graduates divided by one-fifth of the students enrolled in the program in the previous five years, the average graduation rate is 41 percent. Using that same statistic, the average graduation rate for female students is 48 percent. This impressive--albeit estimated--retention rate is certain to be due, in part, to the active student chapter of CIAPR and interaction from professionals within the association. The surveying program faculty supports the student chapter by attending student events, helping with student competitions and responding to students’ interests and requests. This semester, for example, the student group expressed an interest in having a non-credit review course for the NCEES Fundamentals of Surveying exam. In response, such a course is currently being conducted.

Measures of Success

By all indications, the surveying program at the University of Puerto Rico has been an educational success. In its first participation in the NSPS student competition at the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) conference in 2006, a UPR team of five students placed third--and they repeated that performance in 2007. Graduates have done well on the national NCEES exams for professional registration in Puerto Rico, even though the exams contain questions on areas not practiced in Puerto Rico, such as the U.S. Public Land Survey System and various legal principles. Additionally, UPR graduates have done well in their professional careers in private practice and government.

Overall, my experience with the UPR surveying program has given me a restored confidence in the future of surveying and an appreciation of the value of higher surveying education. Because of the success and growth of the program, the university is actively seeking surveying professors to serve as visiting professors or in tenure track positions. From its recent record, the UPR surveying program doesn’t show any signs of slowing down--and neither do its students.

For more information on the Surveying and Topography Program at the University of Puerto Rico, visit www.uprm.edu/civil.

Puerto Rico's Footprint

One of the larger islands in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is about 100 miles long by 35 miles wide and has a population approaching four million. Although the coastal areas, where most of the population is concentrated, are relatively low, the interior of the island is mountainous.

Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War and is currently recognized as a commonwealth of the United States. Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States. While both Spanish and English are official languages in Puerto Rico, Spanish is predominantly spoken.

Puerto Rico is uniquely positioned--geographically and culturally--between the United States and Latin America, and this diversity is reflected in both the curriculum and languages used in the surveying program at the university. Mayagüez, the host city for the surveying program, is located at the western end of the island near the site where Christopher Columbus is believed to have landed when he happened upon the island in 1493. The city faces the Mona Strait, a waterway running between Puerto Rico and the island of Hispaniola, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea.

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