Point of Beginning

Expanding Boundaries

March 28, 2008
Like many things in the Lone Star State, the Texas Society of Professional Surveyors (TSPS) Education Committee is big. “It’s been divided into several subcommittees,” says TSPS board member Bill Coleman, RPLS. “We have a whole division that deals with educational activities. It’s one of the major things we do.”

Andrew Dykman, Mathew Lopez and Rubi Gaona perform the skill section of the surveying contest.

Like many things in the Lone Star State, the Texas Society of Professional Surveyors (TSPS) Education Committee is big. “It’s been divided into several subcommittees,” says TSPS board member Bill Coleman, RPLS. “We have a whole division that deals with educational activities. It’s one of the major things we do.”

The education committee supports the society’s basic mission to further the profession and provide information about surveying to everybody, including those outside the profession. For more than 50 years, TSPS has been developing and offering courses and seminars to professionals, paraprofessionals and the public, such as educational and fun retracement seminars, advanced technician short courses and more. But last year, TSPS decided to lower its sights--figuratively. “We’ve got stuff in junior colleges. We have stuff in universities. We have seminars and short courses for professionals, and we have a pretty darned good convention with good educational opportunities,” Coleman remembers thinking. “But what about high school?”

With this goal in mind, TSPS held its first-ever High School Educators Retreat on the campus of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in June 2007. The objective of this geospatial teachers conference was to convey the integral role surveying has played throughout societal development and to show educators how to incorporate this knowledge into their high school curricula. The event drew teachers from across the state, including several teachers of TrigStar-winning students, and led to the creation of a statewide land surveying competition for high school students.

Barton Burnett, Duncanville High School Engineering Academy lead teacher (right), and John Pierce, RPLS, of SAM Inc., give the teams of the SkillsUSA District 6 competition an orientation on campus.

Making Connections

It was at the retreat that Coleman met Barton Burnett, the lead teacher of the Engineering Academy at Duncanville High School, a comprehensive high school south of Dallas. Typically, comprehensive high schools offer career and technology classes as a supplement to core academics; Duncanville, however, places career and technology classes on an equal basis with core academics. This means Burnett, a self-described history buff, can infuse his engineering classes with the history of engineering. “We studied the Romans, for example, and how they had a surveying tool called a groma,” Burnett says. The groma, the principal surveying instrument of the Romans, was used to survey right angles and straight lines. It had a simple design consisting of a pair of crossed horizontal arms perched atop a long vertical shaft. Hanging from the end of each of the resultant four arms was a conical metal plumb bob attached by a long cord. “We talked about how--with just using this groma--in Germany, they made a wall sixteen miles long that only had a three-foot deviation,” he says. “I just thought that was incredible accuracy.”

The TSPS retreat was a success. “This was the first teachers conference that I learned something every single moment I was there,” Burnett says. “It was the most worthwhile conference I’d been to in years.” While attending the retreat, he decided to develop a civil engineering curriculum based on surveying for Duncanville’s Engineering Academy.

But Burnett’s sights weren’t just focused on the 120 or so students in his engineering classes. He is also a regional district director of the Texas chapter of SkillsUSA. Formerly known as Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, SkillsUSA is a nonprofit national organization described as a partnership of students, teachers and industry representatives working together to ensure America has a skilled work force. Participation in SkillsUSA is open to public high school students taking certified career and technology classes. “SkillsUSA is 100 percent about a student program that develops leadership, personal characteristics and management skills,” Burnett says. But, for students, the icing on the cake is when they demonstrate what they’ve learned at district, state and national competitions.

When Burnett found out how “desperate” the shortage is for surveyors of all levels, he told Coleman, “You’re going to completely miss the boat … if you do not actively get involved in SkillsUSA and develop a competition that shows people exactly what surveyors need to be today.” Up to that point, Coleman says, “It occurred to me that besides TrigStar we did not have a program for high school education.”

Pierce orients surveying teams to the equipment used for the skill section of the competition.

Setting the Standards

By August, just two short months after the TSPS-sponsored geospatial teachers conference, Duncanville High School administrators approved Burnett’s proposed surveying program and purchased his surveying and mapping curriculum, Design of Structures 3 by Amatrol, an Indiana-based company that provides high school level pre-engineering and university-level engineering curriculum and more. “Amatrol has some fantastic equipment and training modules … developed by engineers and technicians,” Burnett explains. “I’ve got students fighting to get on that module.” The Amatrol module includes real-world surveying instruments, GPS and accessories, along with a full interactive multimedia component. Within weeks, Burnett had three three-person teams on the surveying module preparing for the February SkillsUSA district competition with three other teams on a waiting list.

To help with competition costs, TSPS called for industry donations from its membership and established a matching-funds program. With a $500 donation from Precise Land Records of Dallas and $750 from the Dallas Chapter of TSPS--both matched 100 percent by TSPS--Burnett’s student teams purchased $2,500 of equipment, including hard hats, high-quality safety vests, eye protection and two-way radios.

In the meantime, Burnett, the TSPS education committee and Coleman worked together to design a SkillsUSA surveying competition. By October 2007, the educational committee of Texas SkillsUSA approved the three-part surveying competition consisting of a résumé/interview section; a 100-question, two-hour abridged NSPS Certified Service Technician Level 1 (CST 1) written exam; and a challenging field exercise utilizing TSPS-loaned equipment, which ensured that no team had an unfair advantage.

An estimated 700 students and teachers attended the SkillsUSA Texas District 6 awards ceremony held at Texas State Technical College in Waco on Feb. 9, 2008.

The Icing on the Cake

On Feb. 1-2, 2008, nine high school students--four females and five males--demonstrated what they’d learned over the past six months at the SkillsUSA District 6 competition. “We were the first surveying competition for SkillsUSA in the nation--ever,” Burnett says. “There is no surveying event in SkillsUSA that actually has a surveying team on the ground taking measurements, calculating measurements and all of the raw data. There are some events called surveying, but they are using software only--no field work.” And that was a critical factor to TSPS. “If you’re going to do a skill-based program in surveying, you must include field activities,” Coleman says. “It’s not just academic.”

“It was definitely a challenge,” says Coleten Hayden, 16, whose team won first place. “They made it impossible to get from one point to another point by putting a big building in the middle, so you couldn’t survey it. So, what you had to do was … use the law of sines or the law of cosines to get the angles of the former points and the distance of the former lines and figure out the distance of the hidden line.”

Before Burnett introduced the new surveying module to his class, Hayden didn’t even know what surveying was. “I knew you looked through a telescope or a scope or something like that,” he says, “and that’s about it.” Now he thinks a surveying career may be a good fit for him. “When I saw that you get to use high-tech equipment outside, that’s just a two-for-one for me because I love technology, but I also love being outside and getting fresh air,” he says.

Focus on the Future

For their next challenge, Hayden, his teammates and the second- and third-place teams from District 6 go on to compete in the SkillsUSA Texas Leadership and Skills Championships in Corpus Christi this month. Along with more advanced fieldwork, competitors will take the full CST 1 exam, officially administered, with Level 1 certification given to those who pass, Coleman says.

In June, Burnett and his student teams travel to the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Kansas City, Mo. There, they will introduce the competition to other state chapters through a training session that will explain surveying as a career, discuss applicable high school classes, and, of course, demonstrate the competition. “My goal is to get this established at a national level,” Burnett says.

Taking it national is also the goal of Janet Conner, executive director of Texas SkillsUSA, who will present the District 6 surveying contest to the national board in August. “What I have to do is talk ten other states to come in and do that competition so that it will go national,” she says. “The contest Bart’s drawn up with the surveyors is a good competition. It’s far above the one that is in place right now. … And hopefully, next August, it will be accepted and we can put it in place so that it will go to nationals.” She adds, “And we are looking forward to the surveying association to be a part of that.”

Coleman and TSPS are looking forward to working with Burnett and SkillsUSA, too. “This first contest was almost like the birth of a grandchild,” Coleman says. “We have this child that’s ready to grow and take off and make its way in the world.” And based on the enthusiastic reception Burnett and Coleman have seen over the months from the surveying industry, high school teachers and students, both men have good reason to be hopeful--and proud. “We’ve already got people who are going to become surveyors based on what happened at that geospatial conference in June last year,” Burnett says. “I cannot wait to see how far this is going to go.”

SkillsUSA District 6 Surveying Competition Winners

First Place:

Zach Lewis, senior
Coleten Hayden, junior
Jefferson Mejia, senior

Second Place:
Andrew Dykman, senior
Rubi Gaona, sophomore
Mathew Lopez, sophomore

Third Place:
Wraychel Fobbs, junior
Rachel Acosta, junior
Bethany Benardi, sophomore