Point of Beginning

The State of Surveying Education

April 1, 2005
Instructors from around the country share their views on surveying education.

MSCD's Dr. Stoughton oversees surveying students Daniel Corriell and Rebecca Bruno as they practice the use of a level for the determination of the new Mile High Marker at the Colorado State Capitol.


Concerns about the future generations of surveyors seem to be growing. Will there be enough? Will the current and future crop be able to learn all that is expected of them? Will they be able to quickly and efficiently adapt to the technological advances that will undoubtedly occur in the coming years? Most of these concerns revolve around the educational infrastructure of surveying-and whether it is strong enough to elicit and prepare the profession's future leaders. To investigate these issues, POB called on some of the professors of established surveying programs around the country. Here's our report.

Troy State University students attend a one-week boundary retracement laboratory sponsored by the Alabama Society of Professional Land Surveyors. Corky Rodine of the Eastern States Office of the Bureau of Land Management teaches students how to recover evidence at a government corner.

Will the Degree Debate Ever End?

How many years of education is enough? Two? Four? Many educators hold different positions on what type of degree a surveyor should have. The debate over this issue continues to thrive in academic circles and is underscored by the wide variation among states' educational requirements for professional licensure. A growing number of states require a four-year degree for licensure, but many states continue to offer an experience-only route to licensure.

In Montana, where a two-year degree is required for licensure, Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC) offers an associate in applied science degree in land surveying/geomatics. Dave Dorsett, PLS, the head of FVCC's program, believes that his two-year graduates are well-prepared for careers as licensed surveyors. Regarding the controversy over degree requirements for licensure, Dorsett says, "I don't think it's as simple as four-year versus two-year," indicating that the quality of the program is what matters. Dorsett points out that 48 of the 68 credits required for a surveying degree from his program are actual surveying courses, and two GPS courses and two GIS courses have been added during the last five years. His advice to anyone researching college programs is to carefully examine the curriculum.

Other professors do not agree that a two-year degree can prepare a student for professional licensure; many believe that two-year degrees and four-year degrees serve different purposes. For instance, the University of Akron in Ohio offers both two- and four-year degrees. Professor Thomas Besch, the head of Akron's programs, explains that "the associate degree is designed to create technicians-the individual that comes directly out of high school into this associate degree level." The four-year degree offered at the University of Akron is intended as the path toward professional licensure. Dr. Gary Jeffress, RPLS, head of the four-year geomatics program at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMUCC), believes that "two-year programs are well-suited to supply the market of survey technicians," while the bachelor of science degree offered at TAMUCC prepares students to become licensed professionals. "All of our clients have four-year degrees-if not more than one degree," Jeffress says. "If we're going to be on an equal playing field with our clients, we need to have that education." But, Jeffress adds: "There are a lot more positions in the surveying industry for technicians than there are for professionals. That itself is a career that the profession doesn't talk about too much. You can make a good living as a technician in surveying without having to be a professional surveyor."

Dr. Jim Elithorp, the geomatics program coordinator at Troy University in Alabama, staunchly advocates that the four-year degree offers more for the student and graduate. "A two-year graduate doesn't have the breadth that a four-year does," Elithorp says. In addition to attaining surveying knowledge and experience, Elithorp believes his graduates will have a basic understanding of business, and be able to write effectively, program a computer, understand statistics and comprehend the fundamental concepts underlying advanced technology. "What we need," he says, "is a person who can go out into the field and be effective working with others to solve problems."

As the surveying profession continues to advance and shift, it remains to be seen if the individual states will each retain their certain set of educational requirements, or if the four-year degree will become a nationwide mandate. "I think the educational system is still trying to shake itself out," Akron's Besch says. He notes with concern that state societies pushing for the four-year degree requirement need to ask, "Where are these people going to come from?" Besch admits that there may not be one perfect solution to this question, but urges the profession to look at the various models offered by different colleges and universities to find ways to supply surveying's educational needs.

There seems to be a general consensus by those involved in surveying education that the surveyors of today and tomorrow need more knowledge than those from the past. Dr. Herbert Stoughton of the Metropolitan State College of Denver (MSCD) emphasizes, "Whether it be two or four years, surveyors must have post secondary academic education. If you don't understand the subject matter of [broader] subject areas, you won't understand why we're doing some of the things we do with the equipment that we have." The need for greater knowledge is also revealed by the many GIS and GPS courses that have been added in recent years to surveying curriculums. Dorsett says, "We can't dispense what we've been teaching about history and laws in the past, [so] we have to continue to teach old practices while at the same time we're learning new computer programs and new technologies." Besch adds, "The fact is technology has changed. If you can't keep up with that technology, then you're doing a disservice and should be restricted from practicing surveying because you're no longer protecting the public."

At Flathead Valley Community College, located in Kalispell, Mont., four courses have been added to the curriculum in the last five years to better prepare students for careers in surveying. Students learn slope-staking on the campus grounds.

Do We Need More Surveying Students?

Enrollment numbers inch ahead each year for most surveying programs in the country, but great strides are not uniformly evident-a growing concern in the profession. At TAMUCC, enrollment is too low according to Jeffress. "We could easily triple our program," he says. "We have the infrastructure to have three times the number of students in our program [but] we don't have enough students coming into the program." This concern requires solid marketing efforts. "We found our best marketing is to have our own students go back to their high schools and tell the kids of the opportunities in GIS and surveying, " Jeffress says.

FVCC's surveying program has never been jeopardized by low enrollment, but the faculty would like to see the program grow. Eighty percent of FVCC's surveying class is comprised of nontraditional students (those not coming straight from high school). Although Dorsett has been giving special presentations for area high school math classes for 10 years, he doesn't feel his efforts have garnered him many students and he's worried that "the surveying profession doesn't seem to spark interest in the young students in high school."

MSCD's Stoughton concurs: "Some of the four-year institutions are struggling [to enroll] students because many of our students are nontraditional." MSCD has begun to market for students in a variety of ways: through the Internet with a well-developed web page, through professional networking with booths at major conferences and through direct mailings to guidance counselors. "There's probably never going to be enough surveyors," Stoughton says. "But my goal is to provide the best educational opportunity for the students that come through here and get them prepared for a broad-based career."

Contrasting the low enrollment issue of many programs, Besch states that the University of Akron's programs are at full capacity. "My enrollment has reached the point where, in order for me to grow any more, I have to have more full-time instructors, more facilities and more equipment," he claims. Similarly, enrollment at Troy has steadily increased since the program's inception. "We've never had a year where we've had fewer students than the year before," Elithorp says.

What About Employment Opportunities?

One good marketing tool for potential and next-generation surveyors is that graduates from surveying programs are easily finding jobs. Various factors are cited for these high employment rates, including the aging of the surveying population and the subsequent opening of available positions. High success rates are also due to the schools' emphasis on placement.

FVCC does not maintain any formal relationships with local firms, but Dorsett considers himself an unofficial "employment clearinghouse." In a state with a small population like Montana, Dorsett knows many of the state's surveyors, who do not hesitate to call him seeking prospective student employees. "I consider my students as future professional friends," Dorsett says. "I typically know where most of my students [work after graduation] and stay in contact with them over time." He adds that the employment rate for graduates is 100 percent for those willing to leave the immediate Flathead Valley area.

Troy University maintains relationships with many regional firms. "We post all of their announcements for jobs," Elithorp says, which are generally located in western Geor-gia, northern Florida, southern Tennessee and Alabama. Employees from various firms are allowed to come in and teach students. These guest lectures have featured everything from mock interviewing to the use of the survey module in AutoCAD. In addition, many of the recruiters, as well as the Alabama Society of Professional Land Surveyors (ASPLA) and the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM), participate in Troy's advisory board. Elithorp believes this relationship with prospective employers and industry associations helps the program maintain its edge and its focus. "We're meeting the needs of the companies that hire our graduates," he says, adding that Troy's graduates have a 100 percent placement rate. "As long as employers vigorously compete for our graduates, we must be doing it right."

Some universities have established co-op programs that offer their students work experience to make them more marketable. At TAMUCC, Jeffress says, "The co-op is designed for students who want to take a semester off and get some experience or take advantage of an opportunity working in a related field. We've had several students take the spring semester off and work on the northwest slope in Alaska doing GPS positioning for seismic surveys." Jeffress adds, "We tell [potential students] that"¦ if you want to go into surveying, you're guaranteed to have a full career because there's all these openings coming up. The shortages are going to drive up salaries and survey fees."

Besch notes that the University of Akron's program is actually five years in length because of its co-op requirement. "Every student must complete the one-year co-op [requirement] before they can graduate," Besch says. "The co-op is one calendar year. They can do it during summers, semester on/semester off, part-time basis for the whole four years-we're relatively flexible. [Students] can gain valuable experience [in co-op programs] and gain very good resume entry items." Post-graduation notifications reveal that students don't have problems finding work after graduation; the University of Akron boasts a 90-95 percent placement rate.

Along the shoreline of Corpus Christi Bay, Dr. Gary Jeffress teaches TAMUCC students how to assemble a Trimble RTK GPS rover.

What's Next?

Future decisions about the educational requirements for licensure may change the direction of some surveying programs, and advances in technology may change the nature of some required courses. It is impossible to predict exactly what will influence surveying education in the future, but the current members of the surveying profession can have a say by becoming involved in the support or alteration of these programs. Improved communication and interaction among educational programs, surveying societies, firms and individuals can ensure that the programs continue to produce graduates who will be able to move the surveying profession into the future.

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