The GPS Observer
January 1, 2007
Everybody knows that when you take on a task, particularly a task in your line of work, you should understand what you are attempting to do. We gain much of this understanding through education.
Although the background material that I present at first glance might give the impression that this is not an article on surveying, bear with me. This is an interesting topic, and it is of vital importance to the profession.
Educational IssuesTwo things led me to write this article. First, I read an article that appeared in Business Week magazine on October 16, 2006 titled “Better Teachers: A Lesson Plan.” And, second, my old department at New Mexico State University (NMSU) had its review from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
The article in Business Week discusses the question that many associated with educating students have asked, “How can a teacher in our school system teach a course outside his or her major?” Generally, public school teachers have undergraduate degrees in education. This often means that people who teach mathematics, chemistry, physics, etc. do not have degrees in these fields, and as a result do not have the same level of understanding of the subject as a person who majored in the subject.
A few years ago, the dean of the NMSU College of Engineering offered to teach physics at the high school his son was attending. The dean had three degrees in electrical engineering, including a PhD. But he was told he was not qualified to teach at the high school because he didn’t have a teaching certificate.
In my opinion, a university’s college of education should only grant graduate degrees; applicants for admission should have a degree in a specific major before being admitted. The effect of teachers who do not have a sound understanding of their subject matter can be seen in the students who leave high school and enter college with such a weak grasp of mathematics and science that they choose to study a curriculum unrelated to these areas. Engineering colleges and programs offering degrees in surveying are having a difficult time finding qualified students.
Those who teach and work at colleges and universities would like to think they don’t have the problems of the primary and secondary public schools. They do not have the same issues with underqualified teachers because the faculty is required to have credentials in their field. But now the high school graduates who have been admitted to the college or university have so many deficiencies that many have to transfer to a community college or junior college to overcome the deficiencies before they can be admitted into the curriculum.
There are two different types of courses taught at all institutions of higher learning--courses that require memorization of the subject matter and courses that require an understanding of the subject matter. My wife-to-be attended a small college in Pennsylvania at the same time I was attending Penn State. When I met her on weekends, she would have a stack of index cards with information to be memorized. The biological sciences and languages, among others, are big on that. At the same time, my courses at Penn State were mostly science and math, and these were what I term “understanding courses”; I had to understand the material and pass the course before I could progress to the next course.
The Assurance of AccreditationLet’s get specific and discuss the level of students’ understanding in a college or university surveying curriculum. (Note that when I say “surveying curriculum” I recognize that these programs can be called surveying engineering, geomatics, geomatics engineering and perhaps other names.) How can you, or your surveying firm, be assured that when you hire a person who has a surveying degree that this person is qualified? The answer is simple: hire a graduate from an accredited program.
In the United States, the board that accredits all engineering and surveying programs is the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). ABET is the recognized accreditor for college and university programs in applied science, computing, engineering and technology. The American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) is the sponsoring agency that pays the fee to ABET to visit surveying programs requesting accreditation. ABET sends a team of inspectors (my term, not theirs) to review each program. For the inspection, the program must provide course material, including student work, for each course in the curriculum. The inspectors spend about two to three days on campus reviewing this material, and talking to faculty and students. Their job is to make certain that qualified people are teaching the proper courses and that the students have an understanding of what is being taught. If all goes well, ABET will accredit the program for a six-year period. If ABET uncovers deficiencies, these must be corrected and an interim visit may be required.
What about surveyors who have not attended an institution offering a degree in surveying? Around 15 to 20 states require a degree before a person can sit for the Fundamentals of Surveying (FS) exam. In New Mexico, the degree must be board-approved with a minimum of 18 credits in specific surveying courses. In states without degree requirements, a surveyor can become registered with a certain number of years of experience. However, the passing rate on the FS exam for those without degrees is extremely low.
Make no mistake about it, experience is important. I’ve met many boundary surveyors who are experts in establishing boundaries and many who are experts in retracing old boundary lines. But I have met few young, coming-up-through-the-ranks surveyors who understand state plane coordinates, datum definitions, network adjustments and the different NAD 83 adjustments, and other topics taught at a college or university.
Another problem with higher education institutions that teach surveying is location. For example, if you live in New Mexico, a state with less than 2 million people, and want to major in civil engineering, you have your choice of three programs in the state and one just 40 miles away in El Paso, Texas. If you want to major in surveying, you will quickly discover that NMSU offers the only four-year program in the state. NMSU also offers the only state programs in chemical engineering and industrial engineering. Guess which three programs in the College of Engineering at New Mexico State have the lowest enrollment?
If you live in a state that does not offer a program in surveying, attending a university in another state probably means paying out-of-state tuition, which is generally three to four times higher than in-state tuition. Unlike countries like Germany that do not charge tuition or fees to attend a college or university, we have 50 states that operate like 50 separate countries.
I believe ACSM and the state surveying societies are doing a great job in offering seminars, workshops, etc., to help their members understand the concepts of today’s ever-changing surveying technology. Also, I have to give credit to the instrument manufacturers for offering great training programs for their customers. If the public school systems can’t teach our sons and daughters how to understand math and science, we in the surveying profession will have to do it ourselves.