Trends in Geospatial Education
The term “geospatial” encompasses a broad range of activities, making it difficult to define reasonable education and experience qualifications for every position. This challenging task is being driven by explosive growth in demand for geospatial expertise. Academic programs, government regulators and professional organizations are attempting to develop appropriate methods of training in necessary skill sets, while creating helpful credentials, i.e., licenses, degrees and certifications. With clearer career paths defined in key geospatial disciplines, it is hoped that more people will be attracted to the geospatial field and continue to advance the technology.
Geospatial Definitions in Flux
Several documents are available that define the geospatial profession, each from a slightly different perspective. All are the result of contributions from many geospatial educators, professionals, companies, associations and government organizations who work together and combine their knowledge and experience.
In 2006, the American Association of Geographers released the Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge (GIS&T BoK). Used as a foundation for geospatial curriculum, the BoK records all areas of knowledge and abilities that make up the field of geospatial technology. The U.S. Department of Labor supported the creation of the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM) to identify the foundational (Tiers 1-3), industry-wide (Tier 4) and industry sector-specific (Tier 5) skill sets needed for geospatial occupations in 2010. As an offshoot of the GTCM, URISA released the Geospatial Management Competency Model (GMCM) in 2012, which describes 74 essential competencies and 18 competency areas for geospatial managers. These works form an important foundation for education and credentials; however, technology is changing so rapidly that there are already areas not covered.
“Different practices need to be handled separately. For example, conventional land surveying requires a license and rules vary state by state,” says John Palatiello, executive director of MAPPS. “But new technology is not being addressed by existing definitions. There are still many questions. Should we consider LiDAR, mobile mapping, asset management, BIM and drone operations as all parts of surveying? Should every area of expertise require a license? Is it OK that I can invest a couple hundred dollars and start a business mapping with a drone, with no license required? Is that good for the profession? Does that protect public health, welfare and safety? Until these types of questions are answered, it’s difficult to attract young people into geospatial professions because the career path is not straightforward.”
Variations in definitions also impact educational programs. The U.S. Department of Education publishes the "Classification of Instructional Programs," which includes "surveying engineering" in group 14, engineering, but classifies geography and cartography (including geographic information science) as a social science, in group 45. While Congress and many states are implementing programs to encourage young people to enter disciplines to obtain a STEM education, students studying geography, GIS and cartography are ineligible for many grants, scholarships and tax credits targeted toward STEM majors. The Classification of Instructional Programs in the Department of Education is also not consistent with other classifications in the federal government.
Several groups are working to clarify what exactly geospatial technology should include and how it should be classified. Back in 2010, the Coalition of Geospatial Organizations, an umbrella group of associations, unanimously petitioned the Office of Science and Technology Policy with the finding that the federal government "defines STEM fields far too narrowly" and sought "to clarify the importance of the geospatial science and technology in STEM education." To raise awareness of the issues even more, the National Geospatial Advisory Committee (NGAC) conducted a geospatial workforce study and made a recommendation in 2012 "to include geospatial technology and geomatics as components of the STEM disciplines.”
Licenses and Certifications
The existing licensing system in the U.S. is complicated due to the many specialty areas of expertise and the varying qualifications demanded. The National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES) provides a good foundation by outlining best practices for the licensure of professional engineers and surveyors, primarily for activities that affect public health, welfare and safety, plus legal boundaries. NCEES makes rules for what activities require a license, although each state has authority to decide on the specific requirements needed to obtain a license.
There is also the Certified Federal Surveyors Program (CFedS) developed by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) specifically focused on obtaining the knowledge to conduct federal surveys. A seven-module training program prepares applicants for the lengthy certification examination.
Licenses are required by governments to perform certain services, while certifications are voluntary and private. There are many types of certifications that fill the credential gap in unlicensed areas of expertise, such as photogrammetry. The Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP) certification has gained traction over the past few years. GISP is administered by the GIS Certification Institute (GISCI) and reflects a mastering of core GIS knowledge, current participation in the geospatial profession, and at least four years’ relevant work experience.
“I see value in certifications to set a base line of qualifications for an individual,” says Mike Tully, CP, GISP and president of Aerial Services Inc. (ASI), an aerial data acquisition and processing services firm. “The GISP does not inform about particular experience or knowledge of an individual GIS professional, but it tells you something about the person and their dedication to the geospatial profession.”
It is not too common yet to find certifications in drone piloting, geodatabase management and design, and imagery analysis, although geomatics programs are increasing, Tully says. “More certifications that document specific expertise would help us significantly during the hiring process.”
MAPPS Emerging Leaders Program
Managing a geospatial business is another area of special expertise that is often overlooked. MAPPS, the association of private-sector mapping and geospatial firms, is addressing this through its Emerging Leaders Program. At the 2016 and 2017 Winter MAPPS meetings, the group offered a track of sessions aimed at training and preparing middle managers in geospatial firms to become principals or owners. Course topics include business law, ethics, financial management, marketing and human resources, and how to apply these to a geospatial firm.
“Our goal is to develop a certification curriculum to be completed within a specific timeframe,” Palatiello says. “We’re planning on making the program more structured in future years, with a required number of hours, and we’ll award a certificate of completion to successful participants.”
University Programs Need New Approach
Universities have struggled in recent years to keep their surveying and GIS programs relevant considering rapidly changing geospatial technology. Most states require a two- or four-year degree before sitting for the surveyors’ exam; however, interest in following a surveying career path has waned, resulting in a decrease in these programs.
Dr. Apostol Panayotov, assistant research professor at University of Colorado Denver (UCD), believes the study of geomatics is the answer to attracting students. Geomatics provides both theoretical and practical training, which prepares them for job opportunities in the broader fields of oil and gas, space exploration, environment, engineering, architecture, facilities management and building information management.
“Geomatics includes the areas of surveying, geodesy, mapping science and cartography, GNSS and GPS, photogrammetry, remote sensing, LiDAR and terrestrial scanning, and GIS,” Panayotov says. “A person with this integrated knowledge can help almost every industry to become more accurate and more efficient, with better, faster solutions.”
The Geomatics Engineering and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) graduate program at UCD is administered through the Department of Civil Engineering, entirely online through Internet-based courseware and Web-conferencing technologies. Until about five years ago, few classes crossed over between the individual engineering and surveying practices. With new capabilities in software and technology, integrated coursework leading to an awareness of how the specialties relate to each other is increasingly valuable.
“The old system created professional silos by educating students in very specific areas, such as photogrammetry or surveying, and requiring licenses or certifications in each separate discipline,” Panayotov says. “By creating a holistic approach to geomatics education, as well as improving the process to establish credentials, we will produce well-rounded professionals with the ability to perform services and advance scientific development in all interrelated areas.”
At UCD, Panayotov addresses changing technology by adding more advanced classes in the graduate program, such as airborne LiDAR, terrestrial mapping and a two-stage program for unmanned aerial systems (UAS); one covers FAA rules, flying, safety and policy, and the second teaches technical topics including sensors, data acquisition, processing and analysis.
The Future of Geospatial Education
The geospatial profession must evolve as technology changes. Educational programs are struggling to keep up with the new demands to prepare qualified workers and provide appropriate credentials that reflect their capabilities. A major influence on education is the shift toward online schooling. For many people who are not able to pursue a “bricks and mortar” education, the opportunity to study for a license, earn an advanced certificate, or pursue a degree at a university without physically traveling is life-changing. Online courses can also be quickly adapted to include the changing requirements in today’s workplace and more closely reflect the current geospatial environment.
Today there is a disconnect between the reality of educational instruction, required competencies, workplace activities and many state licensing laws in surveying; however, we are headed in the right direction to produce qualified geospatial professionals with up-to-date skills and expertise.