Bridging the Gap
Not all colleges offer a full surveying curriculum, so it’s vital to create programs that entice students into related fields – especially those with an expanding job market.
A graduate-level course in land survey methods in the department of geography at Florida State University endeavors to meet this need. Launched in 2009 as an elective for the master’s degree program in geographic information systems (GIS), the course aims to promote a thorough understanding of the processes used in collecting and mapping spatial data.
The curriculum includes an introduction to geodesy, map projections and geospatial coordinate systems; the U.S. Public Land Survey, land descriptions and cadastral systems; and various survey measurement and computational processes for leveling, traversing, GPS and bathymetry. Adhering to the philosophy that students learn best by doing, the course also includes several field and lab exercises. In the last four years, fieldwork has included running level loops around the Florida State campus, topographic surveys of a prominent quadrangle of campus using stadia, static dual-frequency GPS observations, processing of the GPS observations using the OPUS program of the National Geodetic Survey for ties between Suwannee River Water Management District stream gauges and NAVD, and bathymetric surveys of portions of the nearby Wacissa River, a popular canoeing and kayaking area.
One challenge in launching the course was that Florida State did not have a budget for surveying equipment. Fortunately, a long-time relationship between the instructor and Allen Nobles, PLS, of Nobles Consulting Group, a surveying and mapping firm based in Tallahassee, resulted in the loan of equipment such as levels and rods to supplement the instructor’s personally owned equipment. These types of public-private partnerships can be invaluable to other programs around the nation.
Fieldwork in the course hit the mark. Student evaluations included comments such as, “Definitely the most interesting course I have ever taken” and “I learned a lot about the background calculations that are automatically processed by GIS software, which would otherwise go uninstructed.” The most frequent positive comments were about how much the field exercises were enjoyed.
Since the initial experiment in 2009, the class has been offered annually and has become a popular elective for students in the master’s degree program in GIS as well as for graduate students in the more classical aspects of geography. Class sizes have ranged from seven to 15 students, about average for elective graduate classes in the geography department at FSU.
Through time, technology and experimentation, the course has continued to evolve. This past fall, a new dimension was added in an effort to make the curriculum more relevant to the increased use of point-cloud visualization in the real world.
Although previous offerings had included a brief introduction and demonstrations of laser scanning, a more detailed, hands-on coverage of scanning and the processing of point-cloud data was needed due to the high demand for professionals trained in point-cloud processing and the lack of academic coverage of this rapidly emerging area. The recent purchase of laser scanners by the criminology department at Florida State and use of that technology by state law enforcement agencies provided extra impetus for adding point-cloud processing to the curriculum.
Once again, the relationship with Nobles Consulting Group proved invaluable. The firm provided a FARO Focus3D scanner, demonstrations and technical guidance to improve the course in this area.
The students scanned the building in which the geography department is quartered, downloaded the data and went through the registration of the scenes and rudimentary processing using FARO Scene software, which was selected due to its user-friendliness and its ability to use a file of geospatial coordinates for georeferencing purposes. (In another important public-private partnership, FARO Technologies arranged to provide temporary licenses for the class.) The software’s ability to store a step-by-step history makes it ideal for instructional purposes and for diagnosing errors in processing.
The course will continue to be offered annually as long as there is continued interest, and it will continue to evolve with the technology. Due to the increasing role of 3D scanning and point-cloud processing in the geospatial profession, these topics will be stressed even more in future courses, despite the significant cost of data-acquisition equipment and processing software.
By almost any measure, the Florida State course can be judged a success. Based on the class work done by the students and their enthusiastic evaluations, the course has provided them with a good foundation for their GIS and visualization studies and a far better understanding of the data-acquisition processes associated with mapping. It will undoubtedly enhance their careers in spatial science.
One student has turned his experience in the course into an internship with Nobles Consulting. Graduate student William Ruzek is learning more about point-cloud visualization through a directed independent study of the topic. He is not only participating in data acquisition and processing of point-cloud data, but is also working on the development of a professional continuing education course on 3D scanning and point-cloud processing. He said that the surveying methods course and directed study will be invaluable experience, regardless of where his education takes him. Other students have applied the knowledge gained through this course in successful careers in the spatial sciences.
None of this would have been possible without partnerships with colleagues in the geospatial profession. Loaned equipment, technical presentations, cooperation in obtaining software and advice were instrumental in the success of the course. These partnerships illustrate how classical surveying and an understanding of new technology can be passed to future generations of spatial scientists, particularly in expanding fields such as point-cloud processing.