Formal education versus experience.

I taught surveying at a two-year college for about 10 years. It was part of a drafting and surveying program for a vocational technical school. The enrollment had been steady at about 15 students for many years. The drafting and surveying programs became autonomous and the surveying program was upgraded from purely technical to a combination of technical and theoretical subjects. It soon offered an associate of science degree in surveying technology. Surveying software, data collectors and GPS instrumentation were added to the field component of the program. The theoretical part of the program became more rigorous, and a course in GIS was added. For several years there have been around 50 students in the program with about 12 students graduating each year. The graduates have near, approximately or about national-average pass rates on the NCEES FLS exam and most find jobs quite easily. Graduates have gone into a wide variety of jobs with the surveying technology degree.

However, it became more and more difficult to cram all of the curriculum elements into a two-year program. There are only two full-time faculty members in the department, which means each has to teach a wide diversity of courses and try to keep up with advancing technology at the same time. These struggles of a two-year program, along with my belief that a four-year degree should be a minimum requirement for licensure as a professional surveyor, prompted my move to teach in a four-year degree program.

There have been many discussions and articles published recently focusing on the education of surveyors. What skills and knowledge are really necessary to be a professional surveyor? Are the right questions being asked on the NCEES exam? What is more important: education or training? The answers to these questions depend on the definition of surveying. What is a surveyor? Can a four-year degree alone produce a qualified surveyor? Absolutely not! Can apprenticeship alone produce a qualified professional surveyor? Absolutely not!

The Benefits of a Formal Education

The mission statements of most universities include statements about preparing students for successful careers and successful lives as meaningful and productive citizens; teaching students to think critically, act ethically and communicate effectively; supporting research programs; and preparing students for graduate school. Preparing students for a successful career is not the sole mission. A professional must have the characteristics that these mission statements pledge to instill in the students.

There are too many potential applications of surveying and too many job opportunities within the field of surveying for an educator to be able to teach the specifics of all of them. Most students won't use everything they've learned, but they should all use some of it. Graduates from surveying programs go on to work in many areas-boundary surveying, highway and construction stakeout, offshore ship navigation, geodesy, GIS cadastral departments, etc. There are those who think that only boundary surveying is real surveying and that measurement technology is not worthy of the name "surveying." Of course, boundary surveying is the very foundation of the profession and must not be overlooked in the surveying curriculum, but if someone needs a measurement specialist, who should that be if not a surveyor? It should be a "given" that anyone claiming to be a professional surveyor is an an expert measurer who can use a wide variety of technological tools. For formal education to be successful, it must teach students how to use the technology to become expert measurers. Graduates must know the tools of their profession.

A good education will also give the student a foundation in the basic terminology and concepts that are at the core of the technology. That may include some computer programming, or at least a good background in computer usage, and certainly should include some study on the subjects of GIS, photogrammetry and GPS. These things will change over time, but the goal of formal education is that the graduate will have the tools, terminology skills and confidence to learn new things. I once had a math teacher who claimed geometry was important because: "It teaches you to think!" A college graduate should have learned to think.

The Pitfalls of Formal Education

Unfortunately, teaching critical thinking or ethics in a way that it becomes a way of life, rather than a quickly forgotten lesson, is not easy. A degree does not ensure that the graduate will indeed act ethically or think critically. A degree does indicate that the graduate has been asked to solve problems independently and has been exposed to math, science and grammar.

A surveying program can quickly become outdated. It is taught by people who teach for a living and who may become "out of the loop" and unaware of the daily work and technology being used by working surveyors. It is frequently taught by academicians who care more about teaching students to become good graduate students with in-depth knowledge of mathematics, basic research capabilities and computer programming than "training" graduates to move into the marketplace. The marketplace is so broad that it is difficult for one or two professors to have a good grasp of the requirements of all the types of jobs a graduate may encounter. Those who hire graduates want someone who is ready to go to the field. What employers frequently don't appreciate is that in a typical lab course, the student spends about as much time in lab as they would in one week working. In a typical four-year curriculum, there may be four or five courses where fieldwork is part of the lab. I doubt many companies would expect someone they hired off the street to be ready to be a party chief after one month of experience. There is a limit to what can be accomplished in lab courses. A college instructor can be expected to teach a student how to properly use a total station and data collector. The reason most students go to college is to learn skills that will lead to a career they will enjoy and that will allow them to make a decent living. If the university program doesn't offer that, it is likely to have a small enrollment. Theoretical and mathematical subjects are important in growing a professional, but so are the "training" aspects of the education. Graduates should know surveying software and how to use and verify the accuracy they get with total station and GPS instruments. They need to be able to quickly move into positions of responsibility in the workplace. Students should consider graduation as having achieved the tools, knowledge and skills that will let them begin to learn to be professionals.

The Benefits of Experience

Nothing can really prepare a student for real life. Learning by doing is still the only way to learn many things. The only way to get good at corner reconnaissance is by doing it. An experienced surveyor will find corner evidence that the rookie will not even see. There was a thread on rpls.com a while ago about "getting it." You don't "get it" in a college class.

I would bet on the intern with four years of experience over the one with four years of education in a corner-finding contest. But, four years later, when the one with the formal education also has the experience, I will take the one with the degree. Spending several years interning with a surveyor who is knowledgeable about the history of the area, who knows what types of materials were used to monument corners, who knows about the other surveyors whose work you must live with IS an education--just not a formal education.

The Pitfalls of Experience

The quality of the experience gained by a land surveyor is entirely dependent on the person doing the training. This is somewhat true of college, where much of the quality depends on the professor. But, there are some standards and benchmarks that will be present in almost all college programs. The surveyor who only has experience is limited to doing only those types of surveys that his mentor does. As long as the market doesn't change, they may be able to continue what they are doing through an entire career. But, it has been said that the only thing that is constant is change. I believe the "experience only" route to licensure is part of the reason so many surveyors are reticent to learn new technologies that might help them work more efficiently or that would provide a new source of income. They may not have the background knowledge and skills that will allow them to grow and change with the times.

Education AND Experience Needed

Graduates from a four-year degree program may be expert measurers and be knowledgeable about the basic theories of surveying, but until they have some experience, they won't be able to make the kinds of decisions that distinguish a professional. Surveyors who have not had a formal education may have learned the basic theories of surveying through a process of independent learning. If they worked under a competent surveyor and have had a wide variety of experiences, they may be qualified professional surveyors. But, to rely on that process of independent learning in the education of future surveyors, especially since it is becoming more technical and broader as time goes on, would be a mistake. No amount of extra time will make up for the foundation that a student will get in college. By the same token, no amount of education can make up for experience. The qualified professional surveyor must have both.