The Role of GIS in Enhancing Education/GeoCareers #ESRIUC #ERSIEDUC

A combined ESRI UC and ESRI EDUC panel session was officially titled The Role of GIS in Enhancing Education. It got redefined a bit to examine geocareers. No matter the panel had plenty to say, as did the audience, a mix of educators and industry GIS users. ESRI’s Governor Jim Geringer moderated.

Each of four panel addressed the topic.

Sara Hall, of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) started off. She noted that indications such as graduations rates and proficiency tests suggested there’s a long way to go to educate students successfully. Technology, she feels strongly, can help make learning more relevant. She noted her young son navigated a trip from Maryland to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with her iPhone, not realizing he was learning, but utterly involved in a relevant task.  Schools are not providing that sort of relevance, so students tune out or act up. As she put it, “Students ‘power down’ for school, ‘power back up after they leave.’”

My colleague, Joe Francica, of Directions Media titled his remarks with a reference to a “Lost Generation in Geospatial.” He identified what he considers key problems that limit geocareers. They include:

- spatial illiteracy
- Limited student knowledge of possible geocareers
- Challenge of deciding between domain expertise and geo skills when both rare typically needed
- Certification and GISP as a “calling card”
- The challenge for students to still “sell” geo to employers

Ken Yanow, who started the GIS program at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, CA reported on his fears about starting the program and how things have turned out. His fears about starting a new GIS program included: (1) Would students take the geo courses? Geo is pervasive in their lives, but they don’t know what it is. (2) Will they get hired? Could he get them an internship? Those fears were unfounded. Students took the courses and internships were found. He noted that the requirements for may jobs have dropped to AA or certification from past requirements for a BA or MA/MS.

He also raised the concern of geospatial science/geography turning from an academic subject to technical training. He reports that he wants his students to have both:  “Geospatial reasoning needs to be part of a GIS training program.” In reality, he notes, the jury is still out on that, in part because the explosive growth in the field has not left time/resources to consider its importance in many programs.

David DiBiase of Penn State challenged the attendees with a simple statement: Geospatial is not a big industry. He ran some estimated numbers for the U.S.: Surveyors: 60,000 photogrammetrists: 20,000, GIS “professionals”: 75,000 (4500 GISPs). Compare the total (about 175,000) to the 450,000 computer programmers in US!

That size means that the 1200 grads of Penn States GIS programs (now 10 years old) are “struggling to find a job or find a better job.”

On the other hand, DiBiase reports, 87% of employers are having trouble finding the right employees! Are they not out there? Or perhaps their expectations are not in line with those coming out of school. The real question then, to educators, is:
How do they improve the satisfaction of employers with pool of employees?

What are the reasons for the current “mismatch?”

Per DiBiase there is an underestimation of 2 year GIS programs to produce employees. Those programs do great work and excel at service learning/project based learning, just the sort of experience employers need.

There’s a distinction between academic and professional programs. The former is aimed at enhancing state of knowledge in a subject and the latter to apply the state of knowledge. 80% of advanced degrees are professional degrees: engineers, doctor, lawyers, landscape architects. In geography/GIS most are academic.

The real problem, summarized DiBiase: “We don’t understand ourselves.”

Those in attendance raised some interesting points/questions including:

You could substitute economics where DiBiase talked about GIS. There is most certainly a need for people at different levels of training in the workforce.

Dawn Wright of Oregon State note that in her school geography was seen as too professional and academic enough.

Geringer noted that Duane Nellis, when he was at Kansas State suggested every student take GIS. Yanow noted that at his school many students take spatial thinking simply because it fulfills a general education requirement.

One industry person (not an academic) noted how GIS “needs to be in fabric of our society, absorb into kids.”

Each panelist was asked for a final thought/advice/suggestion:


Southwest serves both those who want to be geospatial professionals and those who will simply use the tool within an area of specialization. Literacy, especially for the young, is paramount if we to be successful educators.


Geography is a great academic discipline. GIS makes great careers.


Directions Media receives 30-40 press release per day related to geospatial technology. That makes him think its growing.


GIS is not alone. It’s in the same boat with computer science. GIS educators should take advantage of stimulus grants for education (Enhancing Education Through Technology) and use them to put GIS technology into schools.

Published Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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