Tyler Junior College and The University of Texas at Tyler are blazing new trails in surveying education to prepare students for a high-tech future.

When Pete and Ashley Elrod decided to pursue a four-year degree in surveying en route to earning their licenses as registered professional land surveyors, they began researching their options. The couple lived in Rotan, Texas, about 60 miles north of Abilene. Pete had earned an associate degree in computer-aided drafting from Texas State Technical College in nearby Sweetwater, but the college didn’t offer a surveying degree. In fact, only two colleges in Texas offered programs focused on surveying. One of those programs was in Tyler. There, the Elrods found a unique collaboration between the junior college and university on a program that focused on land surveying and was driven largely by the involvement of local surveying professionals. It was exactly what they were looking for.

The couple worked diligently for two years to save for their journey. Then they packed up their family and moved nearly 350 miles east to enter the surveying and mapping program at Tyler Junior College (TJC) and The University of Texas at Tyler (UT Tyler). “It was a big deal for us to move out here,” Ashley says. “We didn’t know anybody. But we had heard great things about the program, so we believed the move would be worthwhile.”

A reputation as an outstanding surveying program is one that professionals and educators in the region have worked together for decades to achieve. The effort began in 1955 with a group of surveyors who believed that education was crucial to advancing the profession. The group formed an advisory committee that initially focused on a two-year program at TJC, where they became actively involved in shaping the program’s scope and content. During the late 1990s, the program was expanded to help graduates comply with the requirement for a bachelor’s degree. “Tyler Junior College had a solid program, but a seamless four-year-degree plan was needed to fulfill the requirements for registration as a professional land surveyor in the state of Texas,” says Joey Stanger, president of Stanger Surveying Tyler LLC in Tyler, Texas, and a longstanding member of the advisory committee. “Through a close collaboration with The University of Texas at Tyler, we were able to implement that plan.”

For UT Tyler, which already offered technology programs, the surveying program at TJC was seen as a natural fit. A “2+2 articulated program” emerged through which UT Tyler quickly became considered an extension of the TJC program. “Administrators, faculty and staff of both institutions know each other quite well and treat each other as family,” says Dr. Mark Miller, program coordinator at UT Tyler. “All of these factors contribute to making the program very important to UT Tyler and TJC.”

Patti Williams, who heads the TJC Surveying and Mapping Technology program and was a key proponent of the educational partnership, agrees. “It’s a nice mix,” she says. “The combined program is a recruitment center for survey companies throughout Texas.”

Two TJC sophomore teams in 2009, with Pete Elrod in the center, recover monuments from the 1914 Smith County, Texas, county line resurvey of the original 1854 survey. The exercise included two days of research in the General Land Office files in Austin, Texas.

Since their inception, the TJC and UT Tyler surveying programs have graduated more than 500 students and produced more than 120 registered surveyors in the state of Texas. The programs have also had a tremendous economic impact on the region. “Because of the availability of highly trained and educated technicians and professional surveyors, Tyler-area surveyors have been able to provide services to a much larger area of the state,” Stanger says. “I would estimate that over 75 percent of the services provided by Tyler area firms (approximately $25 million in revenue) are provided outside Tyler’s county seat of Smith County.”

As technology in the surveying profession has changed, the educational programs at TJC and UT Tyler have also evolved. Extensive participation from local surveyors, particularly Chapters 4 and 23 of the Texas Society of Professional Surveyors (TSPS), has helped ensure that the programs remain on target.

For example, advisory committee members insist that the freshmen and sophomore students receive foundational skills in research, data collection and analysis. One of the ways in which TJC seeks to meet this goal is by placing its freshman students in an internship program with local firms. Although such placements have been challenging during the recession (Williams notes that this is the first time since the mid 1980s that some freshmen students have not secured an internship), the program outcomes are accessible to every freshman and sophomore student, regardless of the economy.

This year, the program has embarked on another initiative by adding a new course at the upper level. Called Advanced Technologies for Surveyors, the course offered at UT Tyler focuses on practical applications of GIS, laser scanning and cloud-based technologies, including social media and smartphone apps. But that’s just the general content. “When it comes down to the main objective, or at least a personal objective, I want the students to be successful, to thrive during poor economic times, to think beyond their exams, and to have an awareness of tools and a network of mentors available,” says Laura Crook, the course instructor, who is also the technology director for Stanger Surveying Tyler.

Crook, along with Stanger, Miller and Williams, believes that a solid education rooted in practical application is the best way to provide the surveying community with a well trained, highly capable workforce as well as to prepare students for their future roles--roles that will increasingly be defined by their ability to successfully apply technology.

For Pete Elrod, who serves in the military and is currently deployed in Afghanistan, the new course will have to wait. Ashley earned her bachelor’s degree in Industrial Technology from UT Tyler in December 2010 and plans to take the surveyor-in-training exam in April. Although she’s disappointed to have missed out on the new course, she’s a big proponent of the TJC and UT Tyler programs. “The involvement of the local professionals and the survey-specific focus is a large part of why the programs are so successful,” she says. “I’m sure the new initiative will benefit the students and the profession.”

In the next several issues, POB will go behind the scenes with some of the students in the Advanced Technologies course at UT Tyler. Look for the next installment in the Adventures in Education series in April!